The Exiles

The Exiles | Christina Baker Kline

The Exiles is a well-written, well-researched and gripping story about female convicts shipped to Australia in the mid 19th century. It’s moving but not sentimental, with strong and interesting female characters. All in all, one of the best books I’ve read this year. I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys reading about women’s lives.

From the late 18th to late 19th century, many British prisoners were transported to Australia to carry out their sentence. As male convicts greatly outnumbered female, the British Government called for more women of “marriageable” age to be sent to Australia in order to promote family development for emancipated convicts and free settlers. The majority of these women were convicted for minor offences such as petty theft, for which they could receive up to seven years’ penal servitude.

The Exiles tells the story of Evangeline Stokes, [wrongly] accused of stealing a ruby ring, committed to Newgate prison and sentenced to penal servitude in Australia.

The novel sucks you in from the first, into the immediacy of Evangeline’s life as a servant in a wealthy household in London. She is young and naive, believing that the son of the family is in love with her. She soon finds herself thrown into Newgate prison, defenseless, alone and pregnant. And thence to a convict ship bound for Australia where she befriends Olive and Hazel, and receives some protection from Dr Dunne.

It’s a day-by-day account of life for the women on the ship, with its stinking living quarters, disgusting starvation-level rations, hostile and dangerous sailors, not to mention burning sun and life-threatening storms. You can almost smell the human waste and feel the lice in your hair as you read.

We then follow the women throughout and after their servitude. They are sent to work as factory workers or servants, while their babies are sent to an orphanage as soon as they are weaned.

Kline has carried off a difficult balancing act exceptionally well. On the one hand, this is a deeply researched book packed with interesting historical fact. On the other, a wonderfully written, page-turning novel, with well-rounded characters and a story to lose yourself in. The historical information is smoothly, almost imperceptibly, blended into the novel, which never feels heavy or academic. Her feminism, empathy and support for all women shine through it all.

I took away a half star because I was slightly dissatisfied with the storyline concerning the Aboriginal girl, Mathinna: it felt a bit tagged on. It was very interesting to add in the perspective of an Aboriginal woman, but it almost felt like a separate story for another book.

My thanks to Netgalley, publisher Allison & Busby and the author for giving me a free copy of this book. All my reviews are 100% honest and unbiased, regardless of how I acquire the book.

You might also like: The Thorn Birds – Coleen McCullough

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