This reviewer had the pleasure of interviewing this talented writer in 2005, when Bartlett’s debut novel, Towards a Distance Sea, was published. Bartlett’s storytelling has matured considerably since then with his latest effort, Estuary.
Darting between the lungs of the Murray River in Coorong and his new home of Melbourne, this is a beautiful story of a wood carver named Seth, who upon the death of his Aunt Leila, is sent on a mission to uncover the details of her early life. Seth is a Chinese-Australian, descended from the gold rush immigrants. The story unfolds between the present-day Seth and the memories of Aunt Leila, which eventually intersect. It is a complex novel telling the brutalities of the incarceration of women in mental institutions in the 1970s, where a liberal use of electroshock treatment and mind-numbing sedatives were used to chemically restrain patients. Seth also befriends Ruby, an Aboriginal woman with a son called Cubadgee, which illuminates about the blemish of white Australia’s treatment of Aborigines. Seth’s journey to atone for the absence from the life of the woman who was like a mother to him is an illuminating, yet heartbreaking ride.