Alison Booth’s The Philosopher’s Daughters: Inquiring historical fiction

The Philosopher’s Daughters by Alison Booth is captivating and thought-provoking historical fiction tackling discrimination with artistic impact. Read on for my full review.

The Philosopher's Daughters by Alison Booth book cover on purple starry sky background - Book Review BannerThe Philosopher’s Daughters Synopsis

A tale of two very different sisters whose 1890s voyage from London into remote outback Australia becomes a journey of self-discovery, set against a landscape of wild beauty and savage dispossession.

London in 1891: Harriet Cameron is a talented young artist whose mother died when she was barely five. She and her beloved sister Sarah were brought up by their father, radical thinker James Cameron. After adventurer Henry Vincent arrives on the scene, the sisters’ lives are changed forever.

Sarah, the beauty of the family, marries Henry and embarks on a voyage to Australia. Harriet, intensely missing Sarah, must decide whether to help her father with his life’s work or to devote herself to painting. When James Cameron dies unexpectedly, Harriet is overwhelmed by grief. Seeking distraction, she follows Sarah to Australia, and afterwards into the outback, where she is alienated by the casual violence and great injustices of outback life.

Her rejuvenation begins with her friendship with an Aboriginal stockman and her growing love for the landscape. But this fragile happiness is soon threatened by murders at a nearby cattle station and by a menacing station hand who is seeking revenge.

‘A lyrical tale of wild, frontier Australia. Evocative, insightful, thought-provoking.’ — Karen Viggers

(RedDoor Press – April 2020)

Genre: Literature, Historical, Drama, Romance

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My first experience with Alison Booth’s writing, I was enthralled by The Philosopher’s Daughters literary narrative.

The sisters’ free-thinking upbringing cultivates a simmering tension as they embark on their adult lives within an 1890s English society shackled by strict conventions, particularly for women. This tension is enhanced when they separately travel to Australia, and readers see through their inquiring eyes (and suffragist beliefs) the rampant racial discrimination.

The leading women are very well characterised, despite (I think ironically) being referred to by way of the patriarchy in the novel title. Each of the philosopher’s daughters are independent, but they view and respond to the world in distinctly different ways. Harriet’s interpretation is that of a painter (brush strokes, planes of light) while keen pianist Sarah interprets the world through music.

When she’d first seen this place, she’d thought it looked almost like the sequence of locks on the Grand Union Canal, but less even, less regulated. Some of the pools were short, some were long, some were curved, some almost rectangular. As the water flowed into these various receptacles, it altered its tempo, from adagio to allegro, and it varied its volume too, from pianissimo to fortissimo.

Both have well-formed inner worlds, exploring their hopes, self-doubt and regrets. They, and this novel, provoke thought without shouting. Heartening too is that this novel features 1890s men genuinely supportive of, and living by, equitable principles.

Most appealing though is the open-mindedness and respect with which both sisters engage with the land and all its inhabitants. And of course, their stories of personal growth and liberation in having done so.

Alison Booth’s The Philosopher’s Daughters is quietly moving and captivating historical fiction.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5  — Overall 4.25

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I have since also had the pleasure of reading Alison’s new novel The Painting.

This review counts toward my participation in the Aussie Author Challenge 2020 and the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

More captivating historical dramas:
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert  /  Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey  /  A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson  /  Chasing the Light by Jesse Blackadder  /  After Darkness by Christine Piper

About the Author, Alison Booth

Alison Booth was born in Melbourne, brought up in Sydney and has worked in the UK and in Australia as a professor as well as a novelist. Her most recent novel, A Perfect Marriage, is in the genre of contemporary fiction, while her first three novels (Stillwater Creek, The Indigo Sky, and A Distant Land) are historical fiction spanning the decades 1950s through to the early 1970s. Alison’s work has been translated into French and has also been published by Reader’s Digest Select Editions in both Asia and Europe. Alison, who holds a PhD in Economics from the London School of Economics, is an active public speaker and has participated in many writers’ festivals and literary events. Check out her website or connect with her on Twitter.

* My receiving a copy of The Philosopher’s Daughters from the publisher for review purposes did not impact the expression of my honest opinions.