Although at first this historical novel appears to be about land owner Matthew Fenchurch, in reality Jarulan by the River is the story of Rufina, who arrives as a German maid to the northern New South Wales property, Jarulan, a beautiful home of grandeur that is now decaying. Spanning from 1917 until the modern day, it captures a unique time in history with a fine eye and sensitivity. When Rufina first meets Matthew Fenchurch he is a man suffering from intense grief – the loss of his beloved first wife to illness, the death of his favourite son to war, the loss of his youngest son to New Zealand and the gradual decline of Jarulan, a once beautiful homestead and significant farm. He plans a memorial to his son killed in the first World War, and others in in the community – and when his family comes to visit it turns out to be a pivotal turning point in his life. Matthew’s head is initially turned by a servant girl, Evie, but when Rufina turns up as maid to one of his daughters he only has eyes for her. The results of his liaison with one, and his marriage to the other, will have long reaching consequences on the Fenchurch family.
As you would expect from a family saga, there are many family members who make an appearance in the book, and the author has done a wonderful job in creating a house and property in New South Wales that feel very real. Part way through the book the action turns to New Zealand, which had a good sense of place. The book starts slowly, and by the end of the first section it had captured my interest and I was curious to know what would happen next. But I felt the structure of the book let it down. By jumping many years into the future in the subsequent sections, and learning about much of the action in hindsight, I felt the reading experience was anticlimactic. And while I initially warmed to some of the main characters, as the book progressed I didn’t feel like I understood or liked them very much. The book is lyrical and quite beguiling in places – the author has a lovely writing style, but overall the story was a little disappointing. This was a promising novel that unfortunately didn’t end up delivering a story that satisfied emotionally.