Review: The Exiles

The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Exiles is the second novel I've read by Christina Baker Kline ( A Piece of the World and Orphan Train ) and she is fast becoming one of my favorite historical fiction authors, in part because of her unusual topics and versatility.

The Exiles looks at the lives of women transported to the Australian penal colony on Tasmania (called Van Dieman's Island by most Europeans in the early 1800s), and pairs their stories with that of a real-life aboriginal child, Mathinna, who was removed, almost as a zoo exhibit, by the island's governor's wife, Lady Franklin, as a grotesque experiment. (A previous experiment with a male child hadn't gone well...) The British women, Evangeline, Hazel, and Olive, have all been sentenced to seven to fourteen years of prison service for their crimes. It takes much of the book before the story of one of the British convict women intersects with Mathinna's story in a powerful way.

This is a beautifully written book that takes a long and scathing look at British justice practices and colonial abuses in the 1800s. Passages simply took my breath away, particularly with regard to little Mathinna, but overall the simple disregard for humane treatment that all the women experience is heartbreaking and more than a few times cruel. Australia does, however, provide the tantalizing possibility of a clean slate for the women who are transported there, who will eventually be free to make a life for themselves outside the normal social strata and strictures of British society. Baker manages to pull all these women's stories together and carry the reader on through shocking events. In particular, Mathinna's true story is both powerful and painful. Baker leaves us with the image of her on the brink of adulthood, not long before she met her sad end, rather than giving us more sadness. As in A Piece of the World, Baker wants to show us the immense resilience and tenacity of the women in her novel. Honestly, she leaves me in awe of the women who survived these unimaginable conditions and thrived to make lives for themselves and their families in Australia.

by Thomas Bock (1842)

In addition to reading, I listened to the marvelous audiobook, narrated by Caroline Lee.

I received an advance review copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

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