The Paperbark Shoe – Book Review

The sky over Wyalkatchem is hotter and bluer than any other place, and the winds are stronger, the thermals rising tens of thousands of feet straight up, lifting the litter of the desert in its embrace: shards of quartz and shale and flakes of limestone, spinifex, the lost tails of geckoes, scraps of paperbark, the hot smell of the red dirt, the taste of the sky like salt from the sea, cracked pieces of pottery, parrot eyes, wedge-tailed eagles looking for prey, the broken hearts of men and women, the souls of the children who died in that great isolation, sadness, unwillingness, anger, strands of horse hair, nuts and bolts, chicken feathers, sand. – from The Paperbark Shoe, page 24 –

Gin Boyle, an albino woman, has been saved from a life in a mental hospital by marrying Toad and moving to Wyalkatchem, a small town in Australia on the edge of the desert. Gin’s past is muddy and sad, and her future is not that much better. She and Toad eek out their existence among the rabbits and dust, raising their two young children and living side by side in a loveless marriage. But then, in the middle of World War II, eighteen thousand Italian prisoners of war arrive in Australia – men who are imprisoned by their nationality even though Mussolini has surrendered and they are technically no longer the enemy. Antonio and John arrive on the Toad’s farm, exiles and oddities, and everything will change.

We had depended on one another. Nothing more. He had bred the sheep, found the water, lifted the things too heavy to bear. I had prepared food for him, strips of wrinkled bacon, the folded grey nodules of sweetbreads. I had made his clothes, his children, his bed. It wasn’t happiness. It wasn’t love. But it had been tolerable, so long as there was nothing else. – from The Paperbark Shoe, page 241 –

Goldie Goldbloom’s breathtaking first novel  is narrated in the cynical, observant and damaged voice of Gin, a woman who has lived with rejection her entire life due to her albino condition. She is swamped by poor self worth, and feels ugly and unlovable until Antonio turns his foreign eyes upon her. The Paperbark Shoe is a love story, but it is also a story of what it means to be isolated and searching for identity. It is a story of war, of disconnected lives, of the division between cultures and countries, of bigotry, of loss, and of survival. This novel is remarkable for its depth and for its vivid and striking language.

We are isolated, but we do not invite isolation; every stretch of road has its markers for the lost. And the roads themselves have local names, friendlier than the ones given them by government workers who have never seen a fly-blown sheep. There’s the Pig Slurry Stretch and Metholated Mavis’s Gully and Kickastickalong. Every farm has its kerosene tin wedged between two stumps, or its Coolgardie safe on top of a Model T, and the people here say swing left at the kero tin or turn in at the motor and everyone knows what they mean. Antonio has hung a green milking stool from a stringy-bark at our turn-off. Toad’s stool. Toad’s tool. Toadstool. – from The Paperbark Shoe, page 180 –

Goldbloom’s imagery is disturbing and at times grotesque. Like watching a train wreck, I found myself unable to look away even while wanting to cover my eyes. Goldbloom’s prose cuts deep, exposing alienation and the far-reaching impact of war. Her characters are survivors. They are largely unlikable. Even the children are deeply flawed. And yet, despite its grim observations and bizarre characters, The Paperbark Shoe is extraordinary.

Perhaps most striking, are the characters who people the book. These are misfits, oddities, and outcasts. Toad is short-statured, and struggles with his sexuality while collecting women’s corsets. Despite his weirdness, he is an oddly sympathetic character. Antonio is perhaps the most complex character even though he initially appears one-dimensional. I found myself wondering, does he love Gin? Or is she simply a plaything to make his life in captivity more bearable? Gin’s desire for acceptance is palpable. Her albinism sets her apart from others and she endures ridicule with a hard-edged cynicism.

Jouncing past the scalloped fences and the sheep’s skulls nailed to stretcher posts and the long lines of trees planted by the first settlers, I remind myself that God made the land and men made the cities but the devil made small country towns. – from The Paperbark Shoe, page 220 –

Goldbloom uses these characters to symbolize those who are different and misunderstood in our society. It is perhaps this theme, of fitting into society vs. being rejected from it, which resonates the loudest in The Paperback Shoe.

[…] we are trained from the time we are small to hate the things that are different from us. – from The Paperbark Shoe, page 240 –

I found myself deeply entrenched in this novel. It is sad, disturbing and strange…and yet it is beautifully wrought. Goldbloom’s writing in The Paperback Shoe is nearly flawless. Her language is original and imaginative. I challenge anyone to read this novel and not be moved. I turned the final page and audibly sighed. I found myself thinking of the story, mulling over the characters, hours after I finished reading. Many readers will wonder where the beauty is in this novel among the scarred and damaged characters, and the dry and desolate countryside, but I think those most observant will discover that the beauty lies in how the story is told – its honesty and its acute examination of what it means to be different in a society where uniqueness is often perceived as negative.

I loved this book. It is one which will stay with me. Goldie Goldbloom is a young author to watch.

Highly recommended.

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FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

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    • Amy on May 11, 2011 at 10:19

    Your review is wonderful, Wendy. I love how you describe where the beauty in this novel lies. The characters sound intriguing and fascinating especially Gin. I definitely want to read her story and hope some real happiness comes into her life. The theme of fitting into society vs. being rejected from it is an important one that really resonates with me and attracts me to this book. I’m so glad you enjoyed it and told us about this book!
    Thank you!

  1. That sounds amazing! Hopefully the author is working on something new right now.

  2. Wow, this sounds totally delightful. Thanks for such an incredible review of what seems like an equally incredible book!

  3. Oh, oh, oh! This was such a lovely review, and I have this book on my shelf waiting for me. It sounds just quirky and sad enough to make a real impression on me, and although you imply that it is a rather dark read, it sounds so wonderful! I can’t wait to read it!

  4. Looks like I’m going to have to accept your challenge to read this book, especially after such a thoughtful review! I love authors who write characters that aren’t especially happy or lead perfect lives. It says a lot about an author who can go beyond the surface level plot and create such a deeper meaning. Plus, I really enjoy books that have a focus on language and word choice. Can’t wait to try this one now!

    • Wendy on May 16, 2011 at 07:15

    Amy: You’re welcome! I think the characters are what really make this book sing – and the theme of being an outcast. I hope you’ll get a chance to read this book and enjoy it as I did.

    Kathy: I hope she is too!

    Pam: You’re welcome – it is a really deep book.

    Heather: I can’t wait to read your thoughts on this one. It is all those things: quirky, sad, dark…and oh so good!

    Jenna: This sounds like a book you would enjoy – I know a lot of readers have problems with unlikable characters…and yet, I found myself drawn to these characters and sympathizing with them. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the book at some point.

    • Tina B on May 21, 2011 at 16:54

    Such a wonderful review. I must agree with everything you said. I read this last month, and think it will be one of my top ten for the year. The characters are unforgettable, and the imagery is incredible. The history behind the story was quite unfamiliar to me and had me enthralled from the beginning. Thanks for such an insightful write-up

    • Wendy on May 21, 2011 at 17:09

    Tina: Thank you! I’m so glad you also loved this book – I found it so original and beautifully constructed…I have a feeling it will be on my best of 2011 list too!

    • Kate Schertz on November 8, 2011 at 20:11

    I absolutely LOVED this book. I presented it to my book club tonight for consideration and we are reading it in January. I am thankful for your excellent review to guide me in leading the discussion. Thank you.
    Kate Schertz

    • Wendy on November 8, 2011 at 20:17

    Kate: THANK YOU for leaving me a comment – I am so happy to hear from someone who also loved this book. I read it some time ago, and still think of it which is a sign of how powerful it is. I hope it will yield some wonderful discussion in your book group…and I’m glad my review will help stimulate questions!

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