The Birdman’s Wife (Melissa Ashley, Affirm Press)
Elizabeth Gould deserves much credit for the early success of her husband’s work, and it is tragic to think of what was lost to art and science when she died, aged 37, after the birth of her eighth (living) child. This novel takes place between 1828 and 1841, from when Elizabeth first met John Gould (even then a renowned taxidermist) and their married years working together, up to her death. When the novel opens, Elizabeth is an accomplished artist with a great curiosity about the natural world, but her character is unformed. The reader gets the sense of her attraction for John and his energetic pursuit of knowledge, but the story really comes to life in the sections where Elizabeth and John journey to Australia. In Hobart, she forms a warm attachment to Lady Jane Franklin, and the portrait of Van Demonian life is vivid and full of vitality. The Gould’s sojourn in the Upper Hunter region with her landholding brother is also a highlight of the story. The book is obviously well researched, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps the subject would have been better served as a biography. That aside, I found the novel a diverting read, and would recommend it to anyone who likes fiction that sets lesser-known historical figures firmly in their time and place.
Lindy Jones is a senior buyer and bookseller at Abbey’s Bookshop in Sydney