Book review: Sun on Distant Hills by Elizabeth Egan

Written for NSW Writers’ Centre Newsbite

Surely there are many who don’t have children or grandchildren, yet have a story to pass on. Sun on Distant Hills is one of these stories. In fact it’s not so much a story as a series of anecdotes covering a life in full and parts of other lives.

Beginning during the Depression, Elizabeth Egan’s self-published novel takes us through the life of Irene, a country girl with grand aspirations.  There’s a sense of epic finality throughout the book, and we know from the outset that the story will be long but the outcome will be ultimately positive.  The naivety of the narrative and its simple, anecdotal, plodding flow is sweet in its purity, and the setting and context is one that many Australians, especially those who grew up in the country, will find endearing.

Sadly, the writing is, at best, grammatically correct and full of clichés.  I would put it in the category of Pride and Prejudice, however unlike the classic it fails to provide much in the way of originality or intrigue. There is little left to the imagination and I found reading this book like watching a soap opera – compelling, only in so much as I wanted reassurance that what I predicted will happen in the end, and I’d rather not have to read all the waffle in between.

While this book has clearly been impeccably proof read, the style of writing and the way the story unfolds is quite childish.  That’s not to say it isn’t believable (and we all know that good fiction must be believable), but the reader isn’t given any work to do.  In fact I found it a little patronising, in the same way I find it patronising when my mum tells me I should put on a jumper as I’ll catch a chill.  Some parts made me cringe as I read, and I found a lot of it very contrived.  It reminded me of East Enders or The Bold and the Beautiful – sex, death, lies, illegitimate children, fantasies, suicide, abuse – could we fit in any more obstacles or tragedies for the characters to overcome?  The story itself is interesting, or rather, contains interesting events and could be full of interesting characters, but because everything is so predictable and clichéd, we never get to see any of that interesting stuff.  The main character, while seemingly hard-done-by, is somewhat difficult to sympathise with and I found her and her constant neurotic musings quite annoying by the end of the book.  I didn’t want to hear about every little thought that went on in her head, I wanted to be shown the unfolding of events, not told about them so explicitly.  Similarly, the odd and somewhat sloppy jumps into the heads of other characters throughout was disconcerting, and although the story is told in the third person, Irene is the protagonist, so it didn’t feel at all natural to suddenly find ourselves hearing the thoughts of other characters.

I commend Elizabeth, for putting the story down and making the effort to have it published; I understand the importance of that for an author.  I wanted to like this book, but I can’t; it’s the kind of writing I got rapped over the knuckles for in highschool – far too many clichés, not enough originality, not properly worked, not interesting writing, and the parts of the story that could prove interesting were glossed over.