Jennifer Scoullar writes great rural romance stories that always have an extra mission: an environmental theme. Her novels cover serious issues to do with farming, water preservation, mining, crops, endangered animals and weather in such a way that the reader is educated but the story never becomes heavy.
Billabong Bend (Penguin, 2015) is the second of Scoullar’s five novels I’ve read and I enjoyed it as much as the first, which was Currawong Creek. As with Currawong Creek, Scoullar follows the conventions of a romance story and gives the reader lots more to get stuck into, making for a novel with great, well-developed characters and a storyline that doesn’t flag.
Set in the vicinity of the northern New South Wales town of Moree, Billabong Bend is the story of Nina, who lives alone on her farm, Red Gums, and dreams of also owning Billabong Bend. Both properties abut the Bunyip River, but it is Billabong Bend that contains valuable wetlands and the endangered birds and wildlife that thrive in them. Nina’s elderly friend Eva owns Billabong Bend, but she is in a nursing home in Moree and Nina is reluctant to press her about buying Billabong – not that that will stop her.
Nina has a boyfriend, Lockie, who runs a property that is nowhere near Red Gums. She sees him every so often as work keeps them apart. In their case, distance doesn’t seem to make the heart grow fonder so much as serve to keep them together – until the night that Nina’s long-lost teenage love, Ric Bonelli, reappears in her life.
Ric grew up on Donnalee, the farm across the river, and his father, Max, clashed with Nina’s father, Jim. Max is a cotton grower, reviled by many in the area who think that cotton farmers are nothing but water thieves. Nina doesn’t feel much more warmly towards him, although she is glad that Ric has returned for a visit – bringing a surprise visitor.
The river that runs past Donnalee, Red Gums and Billabong Bend brought Nina and Ric together as children, then teenagers, but their lives are more complicated now. It could take more than a never-forgotten crush for them to overcome the differences between them – differences primarily caused by Nina and Max’s wildly opposed views on nature and farming. Nina is unsure if Ric’s loyalties are primarily with his father – and, if they are, she can’t trust him to care about the land and the river as much as she does. Nor is she sure that she can trust him to care about her.
Billabong Bend works as a rural romance, with lots of plot twists to keep the reader intrigued. It is also a love letter to the Australian landscape and ecosystems, with all their power of destruction and growth. Scoullar’s fans will be very pleased with this novel, and it should attract new readers looking for a novel that satisfies as well as challenges them.
Billabong Bend is published by Penguin.