The rainy season comes fast to the Northern New South Wales hinterland. The creeks and riverbeds cascade with water, the roads are cut off and the cane fields flood. The rain overflows in curtains from the gutters of small weatherboard houses and drenches the tall weeds growing high and luxuriant against back fences.
Somehow fourteen-year-old Allie agreed to pack a bag and get on the train, and now she
is in the middle of this rain-soaked country, cut-off from the outside world. Holed-up on her aunt Julia's dairy farm and brought up from Sydney by Julia against her will, Allie is desperate to return to find her mother Mae, who has mysteriously gone missing and is believed to have drowned in Sydney Harbour. But Allie has no choice - just before Mae disappeared, she rang Julia and asked her to come and get her daughter. Now ensconced in her
mother's childhood home with Julia as her temporary guardian, Allie is forced to confront some difficult truths about her mother's mysterious past.
After Allie's birth, Mae escaped to Sydney, hoping for a better life away from her family.
But she ended up living a discontented and restless existence in the arms of a man who abused her. Growing up, Allie always wondered who her father was, but Mae was reluctant to tell her the truth, and
Allie believed her mother's tale that her father was a wondering hot-air balloon operator at country shows.
Perhaps the handsome Saul, the son of a local dairy farmer, will be able to tell Allie the truth.
She is determined to have Mae's stories laid out and "have the threads of them pulled apart in front of everyone." She finds comfort in Saul, who had a special friendship with
Mae and was even considered her his first love. Allie is drawn to the smell of him, "the salty sweat and the soft fleshy curl of his ear, this warm touch of his hand, and his memories of Mae." Seeing a mirror image of Mae, Saul becomes attracted to Allie, and the girl's presence at his house begins to re-ignite years of protracted passion. He still longs for Mae, remembering the feel of
her body and of how they made love, "his hands holding her so tenderly, the motion of their bodies together."
These characters are desperately looking for absolution that can never be given and for answers that seem too ephemeral: Allie is forced to confront her past and make sense of her present in the form of her bourgeoning sexual attraction to Saul, a man twice her age; scraps of old memories keep flooding back to Julia upon Allie's arrival - the day
Mae hurriedly left, with her baby; and after he found out Mae was having the balloon man's baby, Saul finds comfort in working his body - he just wanted "the sweat to slough the longing for Mae from his cells."
Author Sarah Armstrong's prose is languorous and sensual, the motif of water constant and symbolic. Rain forever connects Allie and Rae – she feels the same rain that
fell on her mother's skin, "the raindrops making an endless circuit from earth to clouds;" the rain salty on her tongue, "like tears and like blood, and for a moment she could taste her mother;" and the rain falling day after day, coming to soothe and contain Allie, "the clouds resting in the steep valet walls, holding her fast."
This is Australian literary fiction at its best - quiet, introspective, and gorgeously written. Armstrong's talent is her ability to place her characters within stunning vistas, and she constantly bombards us with a wealth of astonishing images: the rain-pocked water, misty clouds moving down the valley, and tree trunks slicing the satiny surface of the water.
For most of her life, Mae tried to keep her daughter "inside that safe watery place," sheltered from the harsh realities of life. But Allie is steadily growing up; she
is becoming a woman, and although her journey is fraught with much self-knowledge, she must also uncover the truth behind her beloved mother's mysterious and cloudy past.