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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

From the Outback to Fairyland

A STORY DREAMT LONG AGO by Phillis McDuff

Phyllis McDuff has written a fascinating tale about a daughter who searches for her mysterious mother's past and finds out much more about herself along the way. A quintessentially Australian migrant story it involves a country childhood, an adolescence spent in a schizophrenic whirl between Australia and Austria and discovery of a family's true past. Most of all, however, it is the story of Bettina McDuff, a tremendously strong and enigmatic character who escaped from the Nazi's to make a new life in Australia.

Bettina came from an extremely wealthy family with a luxurious house in Austria. When the Nazi's captured Austria this wealth was requisitioned and Bettina managed somehow to escape here. Used to having all the domestic duties done by servants and a former pupil at a famous English private school, in Australia she found herself poor and had to take any work she could. She worked on a farm and met Joe, a much older man who lived nearby in a fairly open log cabin. They married and as they managed farming together life slowly improved.

Phyllis enjoyed her country childhood and got on better with her easy-going father than her temperamental mother. After Joe died Phyllis found herself torn between Australia and Austria during her teenage years as her mother often decided to take the children back to her homeland. In more formal and cultivated Austria she became a debutante going to balls and dances every night, enjoyed the opera, shopped with her mother and ate Viennese cakes.

Her mother grew increasingly erratic and strange as she grew older refusing to talk about her past when Phyllis asked questions. But there were many odd events which made Phyllis long to know more, such as the disappearance of Bettina's brother during the war, whispered conversations in Vienna amongst family and friends and the provenance of some drawings allegedly by Picasso.

Finally she and her mother make peace and she learns more about her family but some questions will always remain unanswered.

Although simply told the writing is very lucid and this is such an enjoyable book that it is well-worth reading. Highly recommended!

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