I’m reviewing something a little bit different this time.
The Balfour Correspondent is not a novel. It’s a collection of letters sent by 14 year old Sylvia M’Arthur from Balfour, on Tasmania’s West Coast, to the ‘Young Folks’ page of Launceston’s ‘Weekly Courier’ in 1912, and interspersed with replies from James Dryburgh, writing from Hobart one hundred years later.
Through Syvlia’s letters there is a glimpse of a world and time completely different from our own. At the time of writing, Syliva and her family had just moved to Balfour, a small town consisting of a handful of shops and a small school. They’d moved there because of the mine, where her father had work.
Now, there is almost nothing left of Balfour. It’s been reclaimed by the forests that surround it, and James Balfour’s response to Sylvia’s letters speaks of this, and of what has changed in our world in general in the hundred years or so since Sylvia lived, and what has stayed the same.
It’s a fascinating, and in some places, terribly sad read. And it makes me wonder what other gems are lurking in our newspapers, waiting to be found.
Set in the 1300’s in England, this is a story of witchcraft.
It’s filled with a cast of characters: there’s a wool merchant, his wife, two sons, and their two servants. There’s a wealthy widow and her adult son and young daughter, and their servant. There’s a boatman and his wife and children. And there’s a ghost, and his pet ferret, popping in to the story here and there to give his opinion of events.
When the wool merchant’s wife falls sick, it’s the widow who steps in to nurse her. Though the servant suspects foul play, everyone else has only praise for the selflessness of the widow. No one bats an eyelid when, only a few short weeks later, the wool merchant announces he is to marry the widow. Only the merchant’s sons speak up about it, and when the oldest one turns up dead shortly thereafter it’s believed he’s been murdered by theives who’ve been stealing from the family business.
But the household’s ill luck doesn’t stop there. When the servant declares her suspicions of the new mistress of the house, she’s declared and mad and sent to live with the nuns who torture her with terrible ‘remedies’ supposed to cure madness – like a bath of ice, for example.
One thing after another goes wrong, and all the while it’s a mystery as to who is actually at fault – is it the widow, what about her daughter, who seems to know a little too well how to curse those who irritate her? And when it comes out that the widow’s servant is actually her mother… well, what was the purpose of that deception?