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Book Review: A Stranger in my Street by Deborah Burrows

A Stranger in my Street by Deborah Burrows Book Review: A Stranger in my Street by Deborah Burrows

Ive always wondered why my grandparents were so determined that my dad and his siblings grow up as monolingual English speakers rather than speakers of both Italian and English. Its something thats always been a disappointment to me: my Italian surname is about all I have in terms of that cultural heritage. I was aware of course, that Italian immigrants had a difficult time of it upon arriving in Australia in the mid-twentieth centuryAustralia is, after all, famed for its notoriously racist immigration policies and its seething undercurrent of intolerance.

Set in 1943, during war-time Perth, A Stranger in my Street'by Deborah Burrows highlights some of the many factors behind why my grandparents did all they could to cast off their Italian roots. The paranoid sense of us'versus them'is all-pervasive, with civilians balking at anyone who might possibly be an outsider, servicemen reducing their opponents to mere numbers, and government policy imposing harsh segregation requirements. So when Doreen Luca, a white Australian married to an Italian man, is found dead under suspicious circumstances, her husband is the prime suspect. Spouses, after all, are usually the first person to whom the authorities look when attempting to solve a murder, but in 1940s Perth, Frank Luca has another strike against his name: hes one of those hot-blooded Italians.

If I were to categorise A Stranger in my Street, it would be as a cozy mystery novel, as it meets all of the conventions for this genre: it features an amateur sleuth using her social and work connections to solve a crime in a small community context. But where cozies are typically light-weight and whimsical, Burrows debut has the depth and complexity of plot, character and theme more often associated with mainstream or womens fiction, and its a splendid read all around.

While the murder of Doreen Luca provides the impetus for the narrative, theres so much more going on here than a straight whodunnit: Burrows, in fact, cleverly uses the cozy mystery framework as a backdrop for her explorations of the social context of war-time Perth. We follow protagonist Meg Eaton, a stenographeror to the males in the book, a typistas she and Tom Larange, a returned officer who also happens to be the brother of Megs deceased boyfriend, as they negotiate the ins and outs of Perths social scene in an effort to determine the true circumstances behind Doreens death, which turn out to be far more complex than they could have imagined.

The pairing of Meg and Tom is an intriguing one: coming from vastly different backgrounds, they initially bond only over their love of Toms dead brother. However, the entirely separate worlds the two inhabit turn out to be indispensable to the overall investigation. Meg, who is from an intelligent but uneducated girl from a working-class background, and is entirely comfortable around the migrant and working class families who comprise her neighbours, and has their trust in a way that Tom, a firmly middle-class Rhodes Scholar never could. Tom, on the other hand, has access to Perths socialite class and military personnel. Gender, too, is key: Meg interacts with the visiting US military officers in a way that Tom cannot, while Toms maleness opens for him far more doors than are available to Meg.

The careful intertwining of civilians and the military, of Australians and foreigners, of class and gender issues is exceptionally well done, and is used to both further the plot and provide a fascinating, if sometimes disconcerting, account of life on the ground during a wartime context. Burrows background as a historian is certainly evident, and the novel is packed with day-to-day minutiae that bring to life this era. Its a book of juxtapositions: war-time rationing and social dancing; the strong and heroic soldiers and their broken, wounded returned counterparts; the effusive welcoming of the Americans compared with the hostile treatment of Australians of Italian descent, and so on, and overall the result is a brisk, page-turning read.

I admit to some disorientation in the first chapter, and there were a few plot-related instances where I found it a little difficult to maintain my suspension of disbelief, but A Stranger in My Street'an impressive, thoroughly engrossing debut, and one I highly recommend. A note on the cover, too: its lovely to see a cover that reflects a book so beautifully, even down to the cover model wearing an outfit described in the book.

Rating: star Book Review: A Stranger in my Street by Deborah Burrowsstar Book Review: A Stranger in my Street by Deborah Burrowsstar Book Review: A Stranger in my Street by Deborah Burrowsstar Book Review: A Stranger in my Street by Deborah Burrowsblankstar Book Review: A Stranger in my Street by Deborah Burrows (excellent)

With thanks to Macmillan Australia for the review copy

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  1. Thanks for the informative review! I havent heard of this before but it sounds like it is definitely worth giving a shot. :)

    • Stephanie /

      My pleasure, Sam. Its just been releasedI think the launch was tonightso hopefully see it out and about on the shelves. Its a great read.

  2. Thanks for your review & bringing this book to my attention. It definitely sounds real interesting noting that I also fall under the ethnic band though not Italian, it would be a very interesting read.

  3. Stephanie /

    Thanks for visiting, Tien! Its a great read, and I really do recommend it if you can find a copy. Thematically, I think it would resonate with people from a range of backgrounds, particularly since similar issues regarding race and class have arisen time and time again in our history. But on top of that, its full of curious little facts about life under rationingreusing lipstick containers, for example, or re-stitching flour bags into underwear! Its very readable on a number of levels.

  4. Excellent review. Ive read a few Australian novels and most of them were very good. I agree with you about the cover, its excellent.

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Zohar! Lovely to see you here. This ones greatI hope you can manage to find a copy. Its great to see such a thoughtful cover given that so many designs these days are just a mish-mash of iStock photo imagery!

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