The Opal Octopus

Reading and reviews by the Indian Ocean

Review: Red Sand Sunrise by Fiona McArthur

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Red Sand Sunrise
by Fiona McArthur

Published by Penguin
on 2014-06-25
Genres: Australian Rural Romance, Romance
Pages: 304
four-half-stars
Review: Red Sand Sunrise by Fiona McArthur

What a cast of characters Red Sand Sunrise has!

Long-lost sisters gather in the western Queensland town of Red Sand after the death of their father. Callie the down-to-earth GP is just out of a bad marriage; Eve the birth-centre midwife is distressed after a serious incident at her high-dependency OB relief job; and Sienna the driven, brusque big-city obstetrician doesn’t want to be in the outback at all.

But wait, there’s more! Blanche McKay, rural grand dame, is sick of the lack of women’s healthcare in the town, and decides to do something about it.
The chalk-and-cheese MacKay brothers, Lex and Henry (who I keep thinking of as the Luthor brothers, because Lex), take an interest in the sisters. Bennett, vet and cabinet-maker, has a past with Callie, and the flame still lingers. Blanche, of course, hires Bennett to fit out the new health centre, meaning he has to work closely with Callie. And then there’s the buttoned-up Sergeant McCabe, the new cop in town.

And the imaginary town, Red Sand, is a character of its own. It is out past the opal town of Quilpie, where the brown cattle-station outback meets the red dunes of the Red Centre. The town is in the multi-braided Cooper Creek Channel Country, near the corner of Queensland, South Australia, and the Northern territory. The red dirt, the distances, the isolation, and the community all imbue this town with a character of its own.

Red Sand Sunrise really delivers on plot: three romantic threads, and the story of setting up the new town medical centre and researching the reason behind the spate of premature births. There is a happily ever after or two, but not after tears. I often get into trouble med-picking books that deal with this field. There was only one tiny hiccup – how did Callie get her Dip Obs having only delivered 2 babies? However, the rest of the medicine & midwifery was solid, leading to a disruption-free read for me. Hoorah!

I have a couple of other nitpicks, the most obvious being the terrible cover, which looks like a bad self-pubbed paste-job. I’m also not sure that I believed all of Sienna’s dialogue (but hey, we’re all different, maybe I just didn’t relate to her as much?). Lastly, where are the Aboriginal people? There is some talk of “brave settlers”, but the white colonisation of Channel Country was the result of bitter, bloody massacre. Mary Durack, early Channel Country settler, wrote that by 1874-75 “many settlers now openly declared Western Queensland could only be habitable for whites when the last of the blacks had been killed out ‘by bullet or by bait’”. I would have liked to have seen a bit of recognition of this, and of the fact that rural towns in Australia generally contain more than just white people. Maybe a mention of native title disputes? The ancient Dreaming and trade pathways that weave through Channel Country? The oil and gas exploitation controversy that is hot in that region at the moment? (Can you tell I’ve been reading a string of rural romances that do tackle the thornier social, political, and environmental issues?)

However! This book does tackle thorny midwifery and obstetric issues, which is wonderful! And there is a likeable cast of different women, hurrah! It’s thoroughly Bechdelicious. I love the way this book honours the strength of women and normality of birth, while acknowledging that when it does go wrong, it is terrifying for women and carers alike. And that it takes a look at the difficult practicalities of accessing high-risk obstetric care from the Outback. I also love the examination of what we bring to caring and birthing as caregivers from our own backgrounds. I’m also glad that Blanche recognised that the town didn’t just need on-the-ground primary medical care, it also needed a researcher to puzzle out why outcomes were suboptimal in the first place.

Could this be McArthur’s move from medical category romance to “mainstream” contemporary fiction, while single-title rural romance is so hot? I think so.

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