This quixotic little book had me at hello. Set in Australia
in the 1960s, it tells a story of love, loss, and redemption in a way that I’ve
never seen anywhere from anybody. I’ve finished reading other books since I
finished this one, and yet I am still thinking about Tom Hope.
Huge thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the
review copy. It will be available to the public April 9, 2019.
At the outset, Tom’s last name seems cruelly ironic, because
the guy can’t seem to catch a break. Trudy, his perpetually dissatisfied wife,
up and leaves him with no warning and no discussion. Just takes off. Tom is
heartsick, but a ranch is still a ranch, and so he woodenly goes through all of
the tasks—milk the cow, herd the woolies—that must be done. He is such a sad
fellow, and he berates himself for not having done more to make that woman
happy and comfortable. The ranch is not long on frills; an indoor shower would
be nice, and a big old bathtub would be even better.
He actually makes lists.
But then one day
Trudy comes back. She’s been gone for a whole year, and now she’s pregnant. Say
When Tom takes her back, I look at the things he has said
and done and wonder whether he is maybe a little on the simple side. But just
as the question takes hold in my mind, we hear people in town talking about
him. One of them tells another that after all, Tom Hope is not a stupid man.
And so again I wonder why he lets her back in the house. But he does. He
welcomes her. Sssh, he says to her self-recriminations, don’t worry about it.
You’re back now.
Trudy has the baby, and then Jesus calls her and she leaves
again—without the baby. So there’s Tom. You can see what I mean about that last
name. Hope? What good has hope done for him so far? He’s stuck raising an
infant while he runs a ranch, and it’s exhausting, nearly impossible, but he
adores this little boy that isn’t his, just loves him for years, right up until
the time Trudy decides that Jesus has called Peter to come to the religious
compound with her.
So when the flamboyant Hannah, a woman older than himself, a
Hungarian immigrant, comes to town and decides she likes the looks of Tom, all
I can think is, thank goodness. Let the poor man have a life post-Trudy and
post-Peter. There’s nothing like a fresh start.
But Hannah comes with baggage of her own, a refugee who’s experienced
the horror of Auschwitz.
Before I requested access to this novel, the Holocaust
reference in the description very nearly kept me away. Younger readers less
familiar with this historical war crime need to know about it. The survivors
are mostly dead and gone, and there are revisionists trying to deny it, or to
say that stories of it are greatly exaggerated. So yes, there’s a need for its
inclusion in new literature, and yet I feel as if I have had my fill. But the
other piece of it—Tom, the ranch, the child, the romance—won the day, and I am
so glad I decided to go for it. And indeed, it’s not a Holocaust story;
instead, we see how the horror through which Hannah has lived informs her
present day choices.
So yes, Hannah is an interesting character, and the bookshop
is hers, but the story is really about Tom. One heartache after another comes
his way, and he deals with every single one uncomplainingly, telling those that
love him that he’s fine. Really. At times I want to push my way into the pages
to say to him, what the hell? Go ahead and throw some dishes or something. You
are entitled to your anger. But instead, he forges stolidly on, not because he
is free of pain—we can tell that he isn’t—but because there’s no use in
burdening others as well. And as one violent act after another works its way
into his experience, the story builds, and builds some more, and we have to
wonder when he will draw the line and say, that’s it. Enough. And the way Tom
develops from the outset to the end is so resonant, so believable.
This novel is one of the warmest, most affectionately told
stories that I have read in a long time. It’s never mawkish or overly
sentimental; Hillman strikes the perfect balance. I would read more of his work
in a heartbeat, and I highly recommend it to you. If you can find it at a
discount, that’s great, but if you have to pay full cover price, you won’t be