Solomon’s Song (Australia Trilogy #3), by Bryce Courtenay

Nine stars

Bryce Courtenay concludes his epic trilogy on the early times of Australia, using his powerful way with words and a multi-generational exploration of the Solomons. Filled with themes and key characters in early Australian history, the story finally pushes past the date of federation, when Australia stood on its own, while still under the auspices of the British Commonwealth. Picking up soon after the last novel ended, news comes that a body has been discovered in the harbour and the identification makes it seem to be Tommo Solomon. Mary and Hawk make their way to the coroner’s to identify the body and make the needed arrangements. As she is getting on in age, Mary requests—demands—that Tommo’s daughter be sent for, having moved to New Zealand to become a nurse. Hawk agrees to go find her, following the rumours that Hinetitama has fallen onto hard times. A ‘half-caste’, Hinetitama has her Maori roots, but is scorned in a country that still wishes to subjugate those they have colonised. When Hawk brings her back, he is able to convince Hinetitama to live and spend time with her grandmother, who wants nothing else than great-grandchildren before she dies. In an effort to ensure this happens, Mary works her wiles on the one man who has held Hinetitama’s heart, the Dutchman Slabbert Teekleman, though he is anything but an upstanding gentleman. Bearing two children, Ben and Victoria, Hinetitama soon falls into the bottle once more and disappears, leaving Hawk to act as surrogate parent. Mary’s death also shakes the family to the core, but her choices ensure that the brewery is left in good hands. It is around this time that the other branch of the Solomon clan reemerge, headed by David, who kept a life-long hatred of Mary for what she did in ruining his mother’s marriage to Ikey Solomon, head of this entire family. A business conglomeration does little to settle the score, though the Solomons are joined together in business, alternating power of the massive Solomon-Teekleman company, depending who is in possession of a majority of the shares. Fast-forwarding out of the nineteenth century, Australia has been able to stand on its own and emerges ready to play a significant role on the world stage. When the winds of war begin to blow, and with David Solomon ready to die, his grandson, Joshua, emerges on the scene to serve in the military. Alongside him, his cousin, Ben, is also ready for the military commitment, sent to battle under the auspices of fighting for King and country. Courtenay uses this decision—Australia’s Commonwealth commitment to the War—to serve as the major theme of the book. Ben leads a company of soldiers into training and eventually onto the European front, where they meet many an adventure and brutal bloodshed. So many young men, the premier stock of future Australians, leave to fight for Britain’s interests and end up strewn across the battlefield. Ben served his country well and the story turns into a war novel, exploring the key battles of the Great War. Bitter that he is watching those around him die, Ben is vilified by senior military officials, while Joshua is kept safe in England. All this comes to a head when they meet on the battlefield; two men serving the same country, but whose lives could not have been more different. It is here that Courtenay injects his most powerful storyline, as the Solomons must either bury their past, or use the animosity to fuel yet another skirmish, while Europe is torn apart. A brilliant end to the trilogy, Courtenay does things in this novel that I cannot begin to elucidate clearly. A master storyteller with a passion for his adopted Australia, it is a novel—and series—that should not be missed by any with a passion for inter-generational tomes.

I have long been a fan of Bryce Courtenay and have a great love of novels that explore inter-generational development within a family. The writing throughout the series is outstanding and places the characters in key situations against the backdrop of history to shape the narrative in many ways. There are a handful of key characters that shape the story at different points, perhaps none more so than Hawk and Hinetitama in the early portions and Ben in the latter segment of this massive tome. The struggle to shape the Solomon name is a task that neither Hawk nor Hinetitama could have expected would rest on their shoulders, but they do it so well. No one is perfect and no family is free from fault, but these two exemplify the pains of being minorities in a land that is still trying to find its feet, using horrible racism to fuel their individuality. As I have said in the reviews of the other pieces, racism is rampant, though I think it serves to explore the pig-headedness of a new country and these two characters have faced a significant amount of the physical and verbal abuse. Ben Teekleman is a Solomon like no other, who chooses to rise above it all and serve his country without reservation. Courtenay depicts him as a strong young man who does not get involved in the politics—familial, national, or racial—of those around him, but prefers to make a difference in the lives of those in his sphere. What Ben sees, especially when he is shipped to Europe, cannot be described with ease in this review, but readers who enjoy war history or depictions of the daily situations of soldiers will lap up much of the narrative. There are a handful of other key characters throughout, fuelling key aspects of the Solomon family feuds and the struggles to shape Australia in their own image. Courtenay is known for his powerful themes and this book does not differentiate from that, though anyone looking for a novel about the niceties of people or their interactions with others should look elsewhere. There is little that leaves the reader feeling warm and fuzzy, but the narrative is so full of passionate storytelling that it should not be dismissed. All three novels have been stellar in their delivery and Courtenay’s best works that I have ever read. While I deplore racist language or actions, one cannot divorce the way characters speak or how society treated certain groups from the time in which they lived, even as this novel pushes through to 1916. It is a part of Australia’s history and any reader that is not scared off by the size of all three books may want to think twice if they are unable to digest the rawness presented here. Those who can, revel in the themes and the stellar feeling of getting lost in the writing! The world lost one of its best storytellers when Bryce Courtenay died, but his novels live on and I would easily call them classics that generations will enjoy.

Kudos, Mr. Courtenay, for a powerful novel and dominant trilogy as you explore the rougher side of life in and around Australia.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: