Title: The Secret World of Connie Starr
Author: Robbi Neal
Publisher: HQ Fiction, June 2022; RRP: $32.99
Robbi Neal is no stranger to the world of writing and the visual arts. Her first book, Sunday Best, a memoir, was released in 2004, and in 2016 Robbi produced a book of Indigenous stories, After Before Time. Robbi’s third book, The Art of Preserving Love, written under the pen name of Ada Langton, was published in 2018. A trained artist and painter, Robbi has an exhibition of her paintings planned for later in 2022. Robbi lives in regional Victoria.
The Secret World of Connie Starr is a story that encapsulates the trauma of pre and post WWII when the lives of families and individuals changed forever. Sons and husbands joined up to fight for the nation and left abruptly for war. Women, children, and men who were outside eligibility to join, were left behind to continue family and community life in often reduced circumstances.
Set in the regional town of Ballarat, the characteristics of the landscape are subtly interwoven, creating a setting and atmosphere that effortlessly allow the reader to be transported into the era of the thirties, forties, and fifties
The characters are enchanting and so very real, depicting the lived experience of the time. Connie, quirky, different, and engaging, is the central protagonist in this story — she is unusual but those close to her accept, if not reluctantly, her odd demeanour. Finding solace in her lemon tree, she has an uncanny and outspoken manner of speaking the truth at the most inappropriate times. But Connie can also keep a secret and does so to her own detriment.
The novel is strongly connected to the Baptist Church, its mantras, beliefs, and failings at the time. Connie’s father, Joseph, is the Baptist pastor and her mother, Flora, twenty years younger than her husband, is a dutiful housewife, mother, and pastor’s wife. Flora provides a caring role to those less fortunate, needy or in distress who arrive on the family’s doorstep. Everyone is welcome and is offered a safe haven.
The Secret World of Connie Starr follows the lives of four main families: the Starrs, the Mabbetts, the Mitchells and the Findlays. These four families form the basis for the ongoing story, and whilst each family demonstrates different situations, not all are necessarily related to the consequences of the war. With the families the reader rides the waves of sadness, loss, humour, and strength. Childhood death, family violence and unexpected pregnancy are some of the issues facing them. The Starrs are no exception, and the four Starr children all respond differently to their life challenges and at times threaten to bring shame on the pastor and his wife.
Robbi Neal has a unique style and voice that is capable of weaving boundaries between reality and the imagined — it’s this ability that allows the story to shine, and shine it does. Bravely written with confidence and honesty, this novel is rich in spirit and thoroughly engaging from start to end.
Reviewed by: Heather Whitford Roche
Ballarat Writers Book Review Group, June 2022