In a solicitor’s rooms in Brisbane, baby-boomer siblings, Richard, Evonne and Kelly Whittaker are read their late father, Daniel’s will. Daniel has left his grieving children a substantial estate. Before they can collect their inheritance however, the three Whittakers are required to hand-deliver twelve letters to a list of apparent strangers. Each sibling has had a different relationship with their father, and each harbour different hopes and fears about the contents of the letters they have been tasked with delivering. Eighty-eight years, they think, is a long time to have kept secrets.
As the contents of each letter is revealed, the siblings are confronted with aspects of their father’s life, that shake their understanding of the man they thought they knew, of their family, and of themselves. Gradually, Daniel’s parting words offer thanks, acknowledgements, lessons and apologies that it seems are meant for his children, as much as for the people to whom the words are addressed.
Cass Moriarty’s debut novel, The Promise Seed, was shortlisted in the Emerging Author’s category for the Queensland Literary Award’s in 2013, and shortlisted again in 2016 for the Courier-Mail People’s Choice Award. This year, The Promise Seed was long-listed for the Dublin International Literary Award. Parting Words is Moriarty’s follow-up to The Promise Seed, and has been heartily welcomed by her fans. A distinctly Australian family drama, Parting Words borrows elements from the Victorian mystery genre, and uses letters to delve into the psychology of family conflict and familial bonds.
Moriarty’s strengths are in her familiarity with, and non-judgemental acceptance of, the complex dynamics of family. Parting Words showcases Moriarty’s keen sense of the ways in which our individual histories, whether kept silent or recounted at high volume, ripple out and touch our loved ones. Parting Words succeeds in prompting readers to consider both the known and unknown histories of our parents and grandparents. The book questions how these histories have shaped us and the places we live.
Moriarty juggles a wide range of characters in Parting Words. The characters represent three generations of predominately white Queenslanders. Their conversations echo Australia’s contemporary discourses on race, migration, war and sexuality. The generational and class divides on these issues are illuminated with compassion in Parting Words. The topics feel relevant when read amid the current political landscape of both Queensland and Federal Australian politics. Readers may find themselves nodding and thinking, ‘Yes, I have heard these conversations. I have had these conversations.’
At times Moriarty’s ambitious breadth of characters results in some feeling too lightly sketched. Fewer letters, and a more nuanced look at the recipients of these letters might have made for a more gratifying read. Supporting characters, Libby and Jemima, can be difficult to believe at times, and are possibly not given quite enough space to inhabit. Readers may wish to learn more about them, and the sibling’s late mother, Shirley, than Moriarty offers. Occasionally the character Richard is overly-predictable, as are some of the revelations contained in the letters, weakening the novel’s hold on tension.
Readers may also become impatient with the ease with which the protagonists seem able to locate and ingratiate themselves to the recipients of Daniel’s letters. The strangers willingly divulge their personal stories with the intimacy of old friends. The Promise Seed received criticism for Moriarty’s tendency towards cliché, a problem not quite overcome in Parting Words, particularly in the dialogue between siblings in the earlier chapters.
Brisbane is a vital character all of its own in Parting Words. Moriarty depicts the setting faithfully and with a fondness that stands proudly against Australia’s cultural cringe. The Brisbane author’s familiarity with the city, its flora and fauna, its urban and suburban landma rks, and her respect for its Indigenous history, is a highlight of the book. Brisbane readers will enjoy seeing their city on the page, while all readers who have lost a parent will find familiarity with the protagonists’ realisation that their parents could only ever be partially known.
Parting Words and The Promise Seed by Kate Moriarty are published by UQP and retail at $29.95.