Author Eleanor Limprecht has made a name for herself writing detailed historical fiction novels and her latest, The Coast (Allen and Unwin 2022) is no exception. The Coast is a complex and historically layered account of the treatment of lepers in Australia at the turn of the century. Limprecht’s research has covered every detail of the disease, its symptoms and deterioration, the treatments of the illness and the treatment and attitudes towards the people who suffered leprosy (now known as Hansen’s Disease).
She focuses particularly on the infamous Peel Island, and the feared Coast Hospital lazaret at Little Bay in Sydney, where patients were admitted involuntarily and most were prevented from ever departing. Amongst the harsh but beautiful landscape of the bush in that part of the country, Limprecht effectively summons the ugliness of life in that place – the brutal and deforming nature of the disease, the various cruel and painful medical attempts to treat the symptoms and prevent the spread, and of course the isolated conditions patients lived in, amongst prejudice, misunderstanding, persecution and vilification. The narrative does not hold back on any of these points and it is abundantly clear how difficult and abhorrent life would have been for both those afflicted and their family members, by association.
Limprecht wraps all of this history and research around the story of nine-year-old Alice, sent in 1910 to ‘visit her sick mother’ who disappeared when Alice was two. Once she arrives, she realises that her mother suffers from leprosy and that although it has been dormant in Alice, she now has the disease herself and has been banished from her community and the rest of her family to live in the quarantined facilities of the leper colony. She spends the remainder of her childhood in isolation from most of society except for the nurses and doctors who treat her, and the other people (including her mother) with the disease.
Alice’s life begins to expand when she meets Guy, a young Indigenous man wounded in World War One, he having experienced his own racism and prejudice of the time. The two become friends and then something more, although each of their personal histories seems to make any union fraught with impossibilities.
The Coast explores themes of loneliness, isolation, loss, grief, friendship, ambition, hope, prejudice and self-determination. Chapters are written from the points of view of several different characters, which adds a layer of complexity to their motivations and actions.
Patients at the Coast are given new names when they arrive, to distinguish them from their old lives and families, and I found this at first a little confusing, particularly given that Aboriginal people were assigned numbers also. But I think this was Limprecht’s rather clever way of discombobulating the reader, to replicate the characters’ feelings of being renamed, numbered, ‘othered’, shamed, separated and made to cut all ties with their past. Once leprosy was suspected or confirmed, the government was quick to banish the individual, no matter their age or circumstances. As with early contact with First Nations People, the white men in charge made their own rules for those groups they despised, stole ‘half-caste’ children from their families in order to ‘educate and civilise’ them, and metered out harsh punishments for those who did not obey or conform.
Of course life was very different then, and regular folk had to put up with regulations and rules that we consider barbaric today. But Limprecht does an impressive job of recreating the absolute grinding misery of contagious disease at that time, of the feeble attempts at treatment, the abhorrent living conditions of those afflicted, and the minutiae of tending to wounds. However, she also evokes the stunning coast upon which the colony is based, and the ways in which people found to create beauty, colour and life amidst the horror.
At its heart, The Coast is a story of forbidden and dangerous love, of passion and desire tempered by the constraints of ill health and racism, and the capacity of the human heart to find love, yearning and resilience in the most impossible circumstances.