Bloodlines follows two Australian women as they make new lives for themselves in unfamiliar places. In modern-day Fremantle, 31-year-old Beth decides to travel to Papua New Guinea. Something has gone wrong for Beth in her life with boyfriend Sam – the reader does not find out what until late in proceedings – and at her father’s behest she takes a job with her aunt at her PNG missionary school. Meanwhile, 35 years earlier, another young woman, Rose, answers a classified and travels from Perth to a remote sheep station to start work as a cook. Rose, we know from the beginning, is Beth’s mother, and these parallel, intergenerational stories offer Sinclair the opportunity to contrast the two women’s characters and choices.
Rose thrives in her new position with the farming Smithsons. She takes great satisfaction in her cooking, is treasured by the workers, and quickly falls for star shearer Clem. Theirs is an uncomplicated romance between two decent, hard-working people, and Clem is a perfect gentleman. He also runs the show in the sheds, as Rose finds out on her first day: “On that first morning he’s bent over an enormous sheep, drawing graceful lines with his handpiece along its back and swiftly scooping the shaved fleece out of the way. All the men watch every move.”
Rose’s attraction to him is overwhelming but it is rendered so blandly and conventionally that at times it reads like a mass-market romance novel: “His wide shoulders arching, the muscles flexing … not once does Rose see him nick a sheep’s skin with blade … Rose loses herself in the drone of the machinery, the sticky stench of sheep shit and grime, the men’s easy talk and the rhythmic movements of Clem, gliding his handpiece through creamed wool.” You will notice the shit here, but it doesn’t atone for the flexing muscles, which we hear about a few times, nor Rose’s one-dimensional swooning at all this earthy masculinity.
Other aspects of life on the sheep station are similarly anodyne and all of it is mere backdrop to the romance. “Harry Smithson treats her like a daughter and the other men are decent and polite,” Sinclair writes, getting everyone else out of the way as quickly as possible. This, incidentally, is lucky for Rose because, as we are told, there are other teams who are less tolerant of “sheilas” in their sheds and less kind to their sheep. Such is the feminist demands of this book: that women be tolerated and treated kindly.
Beth’s adventure in Papua New Guinea promises more interest to the reader and it does deliver some, although Sinclair’s continuing line in salt-of-the-earth, good people doing their best under trying circumstances makes the chances of narrative tension or intrigue slight.
Like her mother at the sheep station, Beth thrives in her new role. She invigorates the school through her engagement with the students, and the long hours she puts in seem to offer welcome distraction from bad memories. But it is the locals she meets and the dramas of their lives that enliven the story. And while many of her observations about the difference between kids growing up in PNG and Australia are banal – for example, contrasting the bulimia of schoolgirls in Australia with the subsistence diet of PNG girls, or remarking on the resourcefulness of people living in poverty – Beth hints at insights that are unfortunately left undeveloped: “In that moment she sees herself: a white woman looking at all these amazing things. Exotic things … it unsettles her; this business of looking.”
There is also a good episode that illustrates the complexities of Westerners working with other cultures, when Beth meddles in the life of a girl with an infected thumb, contravening Aunty Val’s rule to not interfere with local customs and medical practices. She could take the girl to a hospital, Val warns her, but if anything goes wrong she will be held accountable by the family.
Ultimately, however, the world of the sympathetically rendered Papua New Guineans functions merely as local colour, the people no more than bit players in the larger, and significantly less interesting drama of whether in PNG Beth will find love again, whether she will return to Australia, and what happened to her back in Fremantle with Sam. This amounts either to a failure of imagination or to a lack of ambition and it seems to pander to a perceived expectation on behalf of the reader that would much better be challenged or undermined.
In nearly every way, Bloodlines is too simplistic to be engaging. People are either good or bad and this goodness and badness is physically inscribed so we know it when we meet them. Our hero, Clem, is all broad shoulders and rugged good looks, and Rose is a model of conventional beauty: “Clem watches Rose unfold before him: breasts creamy against tanned arms, belly flat as a river stone.” But when someone is bad, such as Roo, a sleazy white Australian man preying on Papua New Guinean women, their flawed physique gives them away immediately: “his smile more like a snarl … a busted front tooth”.
There are countless missed opportunities for nuance, for novelty, for characterisation that pushes beyond cliché. The role of colonial missionaries and of Christianity in the lives and beliefs of the locals being one glaring example. And the themes the novel does putatively explore – redemption through work, the value in helping others – are too uncomplicatedly presented to sustain it.
Finally, and perhaps most egregiously, the traumatic events that Beth is running away from in the first place, and with which the reader is tiresomely teased – “Not one of them knows her story”, “she would get used to the kids, if she cared about what was before her, and not what she’d left behind” – turn out to be pretty run-of-the-mill.
Bloodlines plays it terribly safe. And when there is no danger, no transgression, no risk, there is little delight. SH
Margaret River Press, 210pp, $27
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 25, 2017 as "Nicole Sinclair, Bloodlines". Subscribe here.