Blue Hour, by Sarah Schmidt, is a searing story of three generations of females unable to escape the fallout from mistakes made by their mothers. It opens in 1973 with Eleanor, an abused wife, mother to baby Amy, leaving her home in small-town Wintonvale to try to reach the Blue Mountains. She has happy memories of this place from multiple visits with her father. Many of her memories are not so positive.
The timeline jumps back to 1940. Eleanor’s mother, Kitty, is a young nurse at Wintonvale Repatriation Hospital. Three years previously she had moved away from her parents’ home in Melbourne to take this job. They did not approve of her desire for independence. Growing up it had been drummed into her that keeping up appearances mattered, and that she must never do anything that could embarrass her family.
Kitty meets George, a farm-boy, just a few weeks before he leaves to fight in the war. By the time he returns he has been altered by the experience – physically and mentally. Despite misgivings, Kitty agrees to marry him.
“How can you be sure love is enough? It had been easy to love him before. I could make this work.”
From here the timeline of the story moves back and forth, revealing episodes from Kitty’s marriage and Eleanor’s childhood. Kitty is trying to be a good wife and mother but struggles with the challenges her life throws at her. George suffers horrific nightmares, is in and out of hospital. Kitty longs for the man he was before the war.
Eleanor is desperate for her mother to love her but carries with her all the cruel words spoken. When Amy is born and she finds herself struggling, her biggest fear is that she will act as Kitty did towards her. Eleanor’s husband, Leon, is away fighting in Vietnam. She fears not that he will die there but will return.
There is also Badger, Eleanor’s brother, who Kitty loved to show off to her neighbours when he was little. Kitty’s legacy from her parents is that she must always be seen to be the perfect housewife and mother. She garners sympathy for having a husband who struggles. What goes on behind closed doors matters little unless it becomes known.
Eleanor tried hard to break the cycle of behaviour, going away to university and applying to study further, abroad. When Leon arrives in her life it is Kitty who encourages their union. He wants a child – and feels entitled to anything he wants.
There is a great deal of foreshadowing throughout the book but the various reveals are still viscerally shocking. By the time it was reached I had guessed an element of the ending, but the detail proved a gut punch.
I could have done without the graphically described sexual activities, but understand why some were included. Kitty in particular is a complex character. Leon is a charismatic brute but all too realistic.
As with Schmidt’s previous novel, See What I Have Done, the writing is taut and evocative. The shifting points of view enable the reader to empathise with key characters, to understand why they act as they do even when behaving badly. It is somewhat disheartening to consider how well meaning parents can still damage their offspring and that this then progresses down generations. The multiple layers of grief and familial love are skilfully portrayed.
A story of disappointed expectation – of the difficulty of being true to one’s self when this clashes with other’s needs. A dark but compelling story I am glad to have read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.