Rose River by Margareta Osborn
Random House RRP: $32.99
Awhile ago, radio commentator John Safran referred to rural romance fiction as a ‘subculture’. I had never actually thought of it that way. I guess we tend to think of subculture as the reserve of the funky young hipster adopting the latest trend, or the anarchic teen dressed in black listening to misery music. As Safran said, when a hugely successful cultural phenomenon is directed by ‘middle aged women shopping at Big W’, it doesn’t tend to make the headlines. But that’s exactly what rural romance has become in Australia over the past 5 or 6 years – one of our publishing industry’s most profitable enterprises.
The most successful writers in the genre excel in putting a modern spin on the age old romance genre, adding real issues of importance to rural readers, like drought, property management and the changing structure of regional communities. These are the things I find most appealing about Margareta Osborn’s books – along with a lovely dose of escapism as boy-meets-girl; boy-loses-girl; girl finds boy, finds herself and finds a whole lot more besides, all under a blazing bush sunset.
Rose River is Osborn’s fourth novel, derived from a festive eBook released for Christmas 2012. The characters of the novella A Bush Christmas were crying out to have a longer version of their story told, so Osborn has filled in the gaps and given us the next chapter – literally – in the lives of city girl Jaime Hanrahan and hunky station master Stirling McEvoy.
Jaime is a woman of high tastes and high heels, recently retrenched from her well paid PR executive role and deep in mourning after the loss of her beloved father. Christmas is a particularly hard time of year to be around other people if you’re feeling sorry for yourself, so as December arrives Jaime takes up an offer to house-sit a property in Burdekin’s Gap – high in the East Gippsland mountains. Some time on her own, far away from the reminders of the life she once had, is exactly what she needs to figure out what she really wants. I won’t be spoiling the ending if I tell you she gets a little more than she bargained for!
There is, of course, a bit of a formula to books like this – but that’s exactly what fans of the genre enjoy. These are modern day fairy tales where, one way or another, the girl will always end up with a prince. The good thing about contemporary Australian rural romance, though, is that the heroines are never swooning, fawning weaklings hanging out for Mr Right. Jaime – like all of Osborn’s leads – is as feisty as they come, initially resisting McEvoy’s charms and later fighting fiercely to win him over.
Rose River is packed with laughs and tears, as well as some insightful descriptions of life in a rural community. This is the wonderful thing about the ‘fish out of water’ narrative; it allows the author to translate the cultural environment as the protagonist comes to understand their new surroundings. One of Jaime’s first tangled miscommunications with Stirling centres on a rabbit shooting trip. This is a beautifully described example of those moments when city slickers have to forget about wide eyed Disney-fied bunnies and consider the repercussions of pest invasions to farmers’ livelihood.
A less dramatic – and more hilarious – cultural collision comes in the form of competitive bake-offs between local women. You simply don’t come between a country woman and her prize sponge! But whilst Osborn gently pokes fun at the fact that a woman’s reputation can be made or broken by the quality of the salad she brings to the next bbq, she also makes some salient points about the enterprising business ventures some of these women create. At one point Jaime talks to Stirling’s sister, Amy, who tells her she works from home making baby blankets. Jaime feels sorry for Amy, stuck at home with kids doing a little sewing for pin money…until Stirling sets her straight.
‘What she didn’t mention is that she runs a company making baby blankets and all manner of other things using all-Australian wool and cotton, employs half the town’s women and turns over a few million a year.’
As a card carrying city slicker myself, these are the moments that leap out of Osborn’s books for me. More than ‘just’ romance novels, I think books like this provide an important place for women’s voices to be heard. They overturn rural stereotypes for city readers, and provide resonance for rural readers who know full well that there’s more to life than sex and the city. Sex in the country is just as much fun!
Buy them at your favourite local bookstore, or here