Friday, August 21, 2020

Review: The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline

The Exiles
The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline
Custom House
Publication Date: August 25th, 2020
Hardcover. 370 pages

About The Exiles:

"Seduced by her employer’s son, Evangeline, a na├»ve young governess in early nineteenth-century London, is discharged when her pregnancy is discovered and sent to the notorious Newgate Prison. After months in the fetid, overcrowded jail, she learns she is sentenced to “the land beyond the seas,” Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony in Australia. Though uncertain of what awaits, Evangeline knows one thing: the child she carries will be born on the months-long voyage to this distant land. 

During the journey on a repurposed slave ship, the Medea, Evangeline strikes up a friendship with Hazel, a girl little older than her former pupils who was sentenced to seven years transport for stealing a silver spoon. Canny where Evangeline is guileless, Hazel -- a skilled midwife and herbalist – is soon offering home remedies to both prisoners and sailors in return for a variety of favors. 

Though Australia has been home to Aboriginal people for more than 50,000 years, the British government in the 1840s considers its fledgling colony uninhabited and unsettled, and views the natives as an unpleasant nuisance. By the time the Medea arrives, many of them have been forcibly relocated, their land seized by white colonists. One of these relocated people is Mathinna, the orphaned daughter of the Chief of the Lowreenne tribe, who has been adopted by the new governor of Van Diemen’s Land."

The first thing that caught my attention about this book was the setting! It seems so rare to see a 19th century Australia setting in historical fiction, especially in regards to the Aboriginal peoples that already inhabited the area, as well as the many people brought over as prisoners of the British government. Christina Baker Kline did a tremendous job in filling this historical fiction period gap and I thought her research and descriptions were incredibly thorough and fascinating to read about. 

The Exiles follows three women whose perspectives we shift between. The first of these is Evangeline, a woman wrongfully accused of theft where she currently works as a governess and sent to the Newgate prison. Before she is sent to prison, she discovers that she is pregnant after having been seduced by the son of the master of the house. It is once Evangeline is on a ship filled with convicts being sent to Australia that she meets Hazel, who is both younger and more outspoken than Evangeline. Hazel's crime is that of theft--that is, getting caught stealing a single silver spoon. Despite her youth, Hazel is much more world-weary and hardened than Evangeline at this point and begins helping out with midwife duties on board the ship, including Evangeline's own birth. I found Evangeline and Hazel's unlikely friendship unexpectedly compelling and I enjoyed seeing Hazel sort of break down her own hardened worldview in order to get to know Evangeline better and help her when she needs it the most. I wish we had gotten a little bit more development from Evangeline, but I still think she was a well-drawn character and Hazel's development was thorough and well-done. 

The third woman that we follow is that of Mathinna, who is actually an eight-year-old Aboriginal girl who has been orphaned and is now essentially ""relocated" (read: kidnapped/rehomed) by white colonists inhabiting Van Diemen's Land in Australia. Mathinna was a really fascinating character to follow and I loved being able to see the colonists' world through her eyes, especially in regard to their treatment of her and her confusion around different aspects of her life with them. 

All three of our main characters face an unforgivable number of injustices against them, but the white colonists' attempts to show that the Aboriginal people, whom they call "savages," can be "civilized" via Mathinna's education was exceptionally maddening to read. I think Kline did a really great job in tackling such big topics and conveying the injustices that each woman faced. The story flows fairly effortlessly and I had no trouble staying connected with the plot or the characters--rather, I was very drawn to each woman's story and had a hard time not thinking about them even after I had put the book down. It's incredibly difficult to think about the sad reality that although this book itself is fiction, everything that happened in this book is rooted in history and very likely variations of it did occur. 

Overall, I've given The Exiles four stars. There were a few moments where the pacing felt a bit off and I wish that this book had been a bit longer in order to give more time to certain time periods and events, but overall I really enjoyed reading this book and getting to be exposed to a new historical time period in fiction!

*I received an ARC of The Exiles in exchange for an honest review. This has no effect on my rating of the novel.*

1 comment:

  1. I love this setting too, and I'm fascinated by the Australian penal colony and its history. This sounds fascinating!