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"The Paperbark Shoe" by Goldie Goldbloom

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Virginia Toad, née Boyle, has married Toad, a man whose name describes him, and lives a hardscrabble life on a farm in the Australian Outback. During the years of World War II, the drought is worse than usual, and the normal struggle to eke out a living becomes even more difficult. Then the British high command directs that Italian prisoners of war be sent to Australian farms as slave labor, and the conflicts of “The Paperbark Shoe” begin as the authorities assign two prisoners, John and Antonio, to the Toad farm.

Virginia – “Gin” – is angry at and repels the world, including her husband, her two children, and the child yet to come. She has survived a cold kind of abuse from her stepfather and has been denied a piano scholarship and tour rightfully hers. She deserved it because Gin can play – in fact, her virtuoso abilities combine with her albinism to make her a complete freak in her isolated community. She has a caustic word or response to every situation until the arrival of Antonio, an attentive, cultured man who takes time with her, can appreciate her musical skill, and eventually finds her beautiful. This is a revelation to Gin but she struggles with it because of her loyalty to her husband. She struggles until she finds that Toad has not been loyal to her.

Ms. Goldbloom compels us to see Gin’s harsh life in the harsh landscape and conditions. She makes everyone’s motivation plentifully clear; the main characters are gratifyingly nuanced and deep. The somber, almost foreboding tone throughout makes this book something of a drag, at least it did for me. There are things about this book that recommend it: the correspondence of the harsh and empty landscape to the heroine’s parched heart; the effective glimpses into Australian thought and psychology during the war; the weaving of Aussie words and phrases into Ms. Goldbloom’s staccato, hard-edged prose. This book does have an edge, and is very well written, but it is limited by its pedestrian ambition.
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