Victoria, Australia, 1891
Anglican priest Matthew Ottenshaw has been given his first post in the small, rural town of Dinbratten. He is excited for a chance to settle in, meet the people, and begin joining the community. Among the locals Matthew meets is Jonah Parks, the town police sergeant and a local hero for taking a bullet in the line of duty. As leaders in Dinbratten, Matthew and Jonah end up spending a lot of time together and a close friendship grows. When a fire threatens the church and Jonah comes to Matthew’s aid, the bond of friendship between them moves those first fragile steps into more.
Two men being together is a crime in Australia, and the men know that more than their careers are at stake if anyone were to find out about them. But once they have had their first taste of being together, neither Matthew nor Jonah can imagine being apart. They spend their days as friends and colleagues, but during their nights the men explore both a physical and romantic connection. But it is not easy keeping such a secret in their tiny town, and exposure could ruin everything they have built in Dinbratten and destroy their lives. Now Matthew and Jonah have to figure out if their relationship is worth the risk, and if there is any chance they can find a way to truly be together.
Some of you may remember me posting my excitement when I first heard about this book a couple of months ago. It was pitched to me as “Thornbirds meets Brokeback Mountain” and that is pretty much all it took for me to snatch this one up immediately. Sigh. I still remember fondly watching the Thornbirds and swooning over the handsome priest, Father Ralph, caught in forbidden love. So I was curious to see if this story would evoke those same feelings of sweeping romanticism as that movie, and I have to tell you, I was completely blown away. I finished this story with the mother of all book hangovers, and I still get an emotional pang just looking at the cover and thinking about this book.
First off, I can not say enough about the writing. The story is listed as Welton B. Marsland’s debut novel, and I am just blown away by the beautiful, evocative writing. I felt transported in time to this tiny rural town. Marsland just brings Dinbratten and it’s people to life, and I could feel the rhythms of this small community, isolated in the Australian bush. There is a lushness to the writing, a sweeping, lyrical feeling to the story that just drew me in and kept me captivated. I wanted to just wrap myself up in this book and savor every moment.
Matthew and Jonah are fascinating characters and so well developed. They are progressive men in a conservative area, and their view of the world and of their role in it is part of what bonds them together. They tend to focus on what is right over what is the official rule of law, and are both such good, solid men. Jonah and Matthew are leaders in the town, responsible for the physical and spiritual health of the community, and they take their jobs seriously. Both are dedicated and caring, putting the needs of the people before themselves. It not only gives the men common ground, but also adds a poignancy as they face the possible fallout of their relationship. These are men who give their lives for their community, who put their own needs and their own safety aside to care for others. Yet were anyone to find out the truth about them, everything they have done would be forgotten in the scandal of their relationship.
Both Matthew and Jonah are endearing and lovely. As I said, they are progressive men who are able to look beyond the rule of law and to what is right. For example, a Chinese woman is found dead near town, and it never occurs to Matthew that they would do anything other than give her a proper burial, despite many in the town upset that a “heathen” would receive a church burial. Jonah takes his job seriously, but he also can overlook those paper crimes that hurt no one. So I couldn’t help but love these men who are so incredibly good and dedicated and endearing. But they are also not perfect, and that is what makes them amazing characters and not just cut outs. Matthew, of course, questions what he is doing, a man of god “sinning” by laying with another man. But at the the same time, he wants Jonah, and he is willing to put that doubt aside so that he can be with the man he loves and can’t live without. Jonah, for his part, is absurdly charming. He is a bit more roguish, experienced with women, not quite as rigidly disciplined as Matthew, and certainly not religious. His playful smirk, that ever present wink, and his general demeanor are so endearing. I found myself pretty much swooning all over him.
What I really loved here is that Marsland balances the realities these men face with the sweeping romance that imbues the story. Yes, we confront the threat of what these guys are risking. We know it is a life or death situation if they are found out, and there is a low undercurrent of tension throughout the book as we wait to see if they can make it unscathed. The men have bouts of conscience, Matthew in particular, about what they are doing. And there is the right amount of anxiety and tension and even sudden terror at times about what they risk. But at the same time, this is not a story about angst and fear. Matthew and Jonah make the decision that they want to be together, need to be together, and they are willing to accept the risks that come with that. So I loved that Marsland walks that line so well and gives us a story where we can be happy and rejoice in the love between these men. There is no tragedy here in this book. Instead, it is romantic and sweet and incredibly sexy, and the story is heartwarming and oh so rewarding.
So I pretty much loved everything about this one. Sometimes a book connects with me emotionally and I have a hard time letting the story go. By the Currawong’s Call is exactly that kind of book and I found myself totally captivated and swept away by the story. I absolutely loved this one and it is easily among my favorites of the year. I can’t recommend it more highly, and I know it will be a story I come back to time and again.