The Jacaranda House by Deborah Challinor

Rating: 4⭐/5

Set in 1960s Sydney, King’s Cross, the birthplace of annual Sydney Mardi Gras Parade, The Jacaranda House is a story about motherhood. The theme touches upon each character delicately and is intricately spun to tell an entertaining story. Polly Manaia, an exotic dancer at one of the clubs at King’s cross, is desperate to live with her daughter, Gina again. Having separated from her at a young age because of the nature of her occupation and because of her conflict with her mother, Awhi, Polly longs for her some familiar affection. The same goes for her flatmates, Rhoda and Star. The two transgender drag performers, long for love in the midst of their chaotic and busy lives. As Gina enters their lives, they realise how much of an uncivilized life they had been living. As each strive to find their new purpose, Polly is dragged down by her old demons and is engulfed by her vices.

While Polly technically has given birth to Gina, she is incapable of taking care of her. Rhoda and Star, on the other hand, become more of a mother to Gina than Polly ever was. So, a subtle question arises – Is one truly a mother just because they gave birth to one? Awhi is portrayed as this traditional example of a mother who makes sure her kids are properly fed, clothed and sheltered. However, she never realises that there is more to motherhood than that.  She fails to protect her children during her marriage to a strict disciplinarian and doesn’t realize her wrongs even when it ends. As Emmeline says – “If you’d been bullied, beaten and dictated by a martinet for decades who has suddenly conveniently died, you might find yourself over-stretching your wings and struggling to find an appropriate balance yourself. Sometimes people don’t know how to behave after they’ve been conditioned in a certain manner.” Although Awhi failed and is flawed, she is still a mother and she loves her children dearly. This made the characterization seem realistic, in my opinion. Polly is another flawed character who makes a ton of mistakes, which may make the reader find it hard to sympathize with her. But mental health is such a sensitive subject. One cannot always sympathize with someone who is mentally ill, because it is hard work.

I really enjoyed reading about Rhoda and Star, their experiences and point of views. The number of times they had to decline going somewhere because they were afraid they might be beaten up for being trans, really broke my heart. It showed their plight in everyday society, especially in those times, although not much is different even now.

The author also touches upon stereotypes, which I personally think was beautifully done. While some transgender folks struggle to keep afloat, because of their social determinants, they are forced to steal, cheat and betray others to survive. But it is not always the case. There are also those who are honest, decent and live a respectable life. Similarly, while some Indigenous people may be violent and alcoholic, exceptions are never the rule. One shouldn’t use those exceptions as examples to defame communities.

Something I wish the author could have done is give Awhi a whole chapter to explain her point of view and further her character development. Because in the end, her development felt too sudden and rushed. Other than that, the imagery in the book was vivid and beautiful, the writing was fluid, the style formal and content concise. The plot was moderately paced, although a bit unoriginal. It was not as impactful as I thought it would be but I believe Deborah is a great storyteller and I recommend it to people who love domestic fiction.

Thank you, HarperCollins Australia, for the review copy!

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