The Coast, by Eleanor Limprecht

For once, this clichéd cover design is actually appropriate to the novel within its pages.  This is a story of wistful gazing out to sea… Alice has been an inmate since she was nine years old.  She lost her grandfather to leprosy and suffered the stigma from people who feared its contagion, and then her mother disappeared when she was two.  At nine she began to show symptoms of the disease (now known as Hanson’s Disease) and the kindest thing her grandmother could do for her was to deliver her personally to the Coast Hospital at Little Bay in Sydney.  Her mother’s backstory reveals her caged journey to incarceration, a nightmare journey Alice was spared only by the intervention of the women who loved her. But they could not spare her from the provisions of the Leprosy Act of 1890 nor from the progression of this cruel disease. Alice is not actually her real name.  She was baptised Hilda, but on admission, patients were renamed (and numbered) and buried on site, so that the stigma was untraceable.  Hilda chooses the name Alice because her favourite book is Alice in Wonderland. Her mother Nellie chooses the name Clea, an allusion to Cleopatra, a powerful woman who did things her way and took love where she found it. The place where Alice grows to be a young woman is no wonderland.  There is a kindly doctor escaping the demons of his prohibited sexuality, and the authorities have done their best by providing individual cottages, a private beach, a rowboat, a library of books, and even a wireless when such things become available (though the men get one first).  But it’s a very small world, from which very few leave.  Only occasionally is there is a misdiagnosis.  Rarely, some patients turn out to have a less devastating form of the disease.  For these, only after 13 negative results in a row do monthly swabs offer any prospect of release. Yes, that’s just over a year.  A long time to be isolated from the world and everyone you love if the diagnosis was wrong.  And for all patients, any time is a long time when science is taking so long to recognise that the disease is not as contagious as was commonly thought.   Millions of us now have had the brief experience of self-isolation while waiting for PCR results, and now with Omicron rampant throughout the country hundred of thousands have had the experience of ISO at home till no longer infectious.  Some struggled with lockdowns, but isolation is worse when you remember the possibility that you or someone you love might become one of those who die. Australia has now reached a grim statistic, with 10,000 Covid deaths, and rising. For Alice and the mother who loves her there is no escape from the realisation that only disfigurement, disability and death lie ahead. Limprecht crafts a beautiful novel from this ghastly scenario with the arrival of a young Indigenous man who’d lost a leg in WW1 and came home only to be locked up as a contagion to others.  It becomes true after all — as our mothers told us when as teenagers we cared so much about appearance — that it is not what you look like that matters, it’s who you are inside. The novel is narrated from four perspectives — Alice’s; her mother’s, the doctor Will’s, and that of Jack, who takes the name of his best mate Guy. Vivid images of the setting evoke the period while sparkling dialogue brings these characters to life: I heard Jim inside asking Guy in a muffled voice who it was, and then a low, long cackle and Guy telling him to shut his gob.  The warm breeze rattled the corrugated-iron roof and the floorboards of the verandah were soft, rotted away in places.  The whole place needed a lick of paint.  But it was swept spotless and the garden was bursting with flowering bushes—azaleas and gardenias, even the half-bare branches of a rosebush.  A fat lazy bee hovered. ‘Who’s the gardener?’ I asked. ‘That’s Jim.  He’s not feeling so great today, but he’s good at keepin’ anything alive—even himself.  He says to give you his hellos. You been reading to Red?’ I nodded.  ‘Dante’s Inferno today.’ ‘How come Red gets so much of your time then?’ I swallowed my fear and looked him straight in the eye.  ‘He asks me.’ (p.219) BTW, apropos of the issues raised by Terri Janke’s True Tracks, Respecting Indigenous Knowledge and Culture, The Coast is a masterclass in getting it right.  Acknowledgements at the back of the book demonstrate the care and sensitivity with which Limprecht has crafted this novel, and reveal the debt she owes to Indigenous readers of the MS and to keepers of Indigenous history and tour-guides in Indigenous sites she visited as part of her research. With the publication of The Coast, Eleanor Limprecht is the author of four novels: What Was Left (2013, shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal, nominated for the Voss Literary Prize, and on my TBR); Long Bay (2015, see my review); and The Passengers (2018, see my review). I really like the way she tackles taboo subjects in the historical record with sensitivity and i

The Coast, by Eleanor Limprecht

For once, this clichéd cover design is actually appropriate to the novel within its pages.  This is a story of wistful gazing out to sea…

Alice has been an inmate since she was nine years old.  She lost her grandfather to leprosy and suffered the stigma from people who feared its contagion, and then her mother disappeared when she was two.  At nine she began to show symptoms of the disease (now known as Hanson’s Disease) and the kindest thing her grandmother could do for her was to deliver her personally to the Coast Hospital at Little Bay in Sydney.  Her mother’s backstory reveals her caged journey to incarceration, a nightmare journey Alice was spared only by the intervention of the women who loved her.

But they could not spare her from the provisions of the Leprosy Act of 1890 nor from the progression of this cruel disease.

Alice is not actually her real name.  She was baptised Hilda, but on admission, patients were renamed (and numbered) and buried on site, so that the stigma was untraceable.  Hilda chooses the name Alice because her favourite book is Alice in Wonderland. Her mother Nellie chooses the name Clea, an allusion to Cleopatra, a powerful woman who did things her way and took love where she found it.

The place where Alice grows to be a young woman is no wonderland.  There is a kindly doctor escaping the demons of his prohibited sexuality, and the authorities have done their best by providing individual cottages, a private beach, a rowboat, a library of books, and even a wireless when such things become available (though the men get one first).  But it’s a very small world, from which very few leave.  Only occasionally is there is a misdiagnosis.  Rarely, some patients turn out to have a less devastating form of the disease.  For these, only after 13 negative results in a row do monthly swabs offer any prospect of release.

Yes, that’s just over a year.  A long time to be isolated from the world and everyone you love if the diagnosis was wrong.  And for all patients, any time is a long time when science is taking so long to recognise that the disease is not as contagious as was commonly thought.   Millions of us now have had the brief experience of self-isolation while waiting for PCR results, and now with Omicron rampant throughout the country hundred of thousands have had the experience of ISO at home till no longer infectious.  Some struggled with lockdowns, but isolation is worse when you remember the possibility that you or someone you love might become one of those who die.

Australia has now reached a grim statistic, with 10,000 Covid deaths, and rising.

For Alice and the mother who loves her there is no escape from the realisation that only disfigurement, disability and death lie ahead. Limprecht crafts a beautiful novel from this ghastly scenario with the arrival of a young Indigenous man who’d lost a leg in WW1 and came home only to be locked up as a contagion to others.  It becomes true after all — as our mothers told us when as teenagers we cared so much about appearance — that it is not what you look like that matters, it’s who you are inside.

The novel is narrated from four perspectives — Alice’s; her mother’s, the doctor Will’s, and that of Jack, who takes the name of his best mate Guy. Vivid images of the setting evoke the period while sparkling dialogue brings these characters to life:

I heard Jim inside asking Guy in a muffled voice who it was, and then a low, long cackle and Guy telling him to shut his gob.  The warm breeze rattled the corrugated-iron roof and the floorboards of the verandah were soft, rotted away in places.  The whole place needed a lick of paint.  But it was swept spotless and the garden was bursting with flowering bushes—azaleas and gardenias, even the half-bare branches of a rosebush.  A fat lazy bee hovered.

‘Who’s the gardener?’ I asked.

‘That’s Jim.  He’s not feeling so great today, but he’s good at keepin’ anything alive—even himself.  He says to give you his hellos. You been reading to Red?’

I nodded.  ‘Dante’s Inferno today.’

‘How come Red gets so much of your time then?’

I swallowed my fear and looked him straight in the eye.  ‘He asks me.’ (p.219)

BTW, apropos of the issues raised by Terri Janke’s True Tracks, Respecting Indigenous Knowledge and CultureThe Coast is a masterclass in getting it right.  Acknowledgements at the back of the book demonstrate the care and sensitivity with which Limprecht has crafted this novel, and reveal the debt she owes to Indigenous readers of the MS and to keepers of Indigenous history and tour-guides in Indigenous sites she visited as part of her research.

With the publication of The Coast, Eleanor Limprecht is the author of four novels: What Was Left (2013, shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal, nominated for the Voss Literary Prize, and on my TBR); Long Bay (2015, see my review); and The Passengers (2018, see my review). I really like the way she tackles taboo subjects in the historical record with sensitivity and insight.

You can find out more about Eleanor Limprecht at Meet an Aussie Author and at her website.

Author: Eleanor Limprecht
Title: The Coast
Cover design: Nada Backovic
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2022
ISBN: 9781760879402, pbk., 319 pages
Source: Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin