The Coast by Eleanor Limprecht
The Coast is a powerful historical novel that spans many turbulent years in Australia’s history, including the First World War and the Spanish Flu epidemic. But the common thread that binds the lives of the characters is leprosy, and the associated isolation, discrimination and fear.
Coast Hospital lazaret at Little Bay in Sydney was a real place, and the novel is based on Limprecht’s thorough research. The locale may have been idyllic, but the conditions were not, particularly for those suffering from leprosy. The Bible has not done the disease any favours, as Dr. Will Stenger reflects. Although less contagious than many of the other diseases treated at the main hospital, those suffering from leprosy were forcibly removed from their homes and communities and sent to live in lazarets such as Coast Hospital and Peel Island in Moreton Bay which were veritable prisons.
Using a number of narrators speaking in both first and third-person immerses the reader, making you relate personally to each of their stories. The story of Jack, a stolen generation Yuwaalaraay man who survives losing a leg during World War I, only to discover he has leprosy, is particularly moving. I found the chapters describing his time as a member of the Light Horse Brigade and the battle of Beersheba particularly harrowing. The treatment of returned Indigenous soldiers is not a proud moment in Australian history.
There are many poignant moments in the book, and many times when I felt angry and frustrated by the injustices experienced by the characters. Alice, who is only nine years old in 1910 when she is sent to the lazaret, grows up in the confines of the Hospital grounds and is feeling the constraints of her small world when Jack arrives in 1924. As their friendship blossoms into something deeper, Alice thinks ‘I had grown so used to pain, I did not know what to make of pleasure.’
The Coast explores many forms of isolation and discrimination, not only for those suffering from leprosy, but for Indigenous Australians and homosexuals. Anyone who feels nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ needs to read this novel to have some sense knocked into them! There was nothing particularly ‘good’ about the ‘old days’ unless you were white and wealthy! Harsh judgements were made of anyone who didn’t meet the constrained conformity of the times.
Meg Keneally says it all on the front cover: The Coast is ‘a compelling story of loss and liberty and the capacity of the human mind to transcend boundaries’.
For more information about the history of Coast Hospital, visit https://princehenryhospitalmuseum.org/