Book Review: The Place on Dalhousie by Melina Marchetta – a warm-hearted novel about finding family where you least expect it

I picked this book up as it was recommended by a librarian, my final task in the Turn Up the Heat winter reading challenge at the library. The Place on Dalhousie came out in 2019, and I am reminded a little of the first book I read by Marchetta – Looking for Alibrandi, published in 1992 – with its strong Australian sense of place and memorable characters.

In the recent book we have three main characters flung together by circumstances trying to make the best of things. Rosie Genarro is a care-giver in rural Queensland when she meets Jimmy in the middle of a natural disaster. He’s part of the rescue team when Rosie has to get her recalcitrant elderly client out of her home before floods destroy it. Two years later she’s back in Sydney with a baby, living in her parents’ house. Only her parents are both dead – Rosie’s still mourning her father – and she’s in a stand-off with her stepmother, Martha, over who owns the house. Jimmy is nowhere to be seen.

Martha is also still grieving Seb, who according to Rosie, she married far too soon after the death of her mother. Martha has a high-pressure job, and is desperate for some leave. She’s also a prickly, difficult woman, and sharing her home with her step-daughter and her unsettled baby is ramping up her stress levels. Somehow she gets dragged into a netball team with her old schoolmates, coached by a faded footy star and former schoolgirl crush, the once more single brother of one of her mates.

When Jimmy finds his long-lost phone, he discovers he’s also a father. He travels to Sydney to meet his son and perhaps to make things right with Rosie. It’s not all plain sailing, though. He’s working in the mining industry in Perth, bunking in with friends on the weeks he’s rostered off. Rosie is distrustful and it will take a lot to win her over. Both are very young and have dreams of a new career path – Rosie as a midwife; Jimmy as a paramedic. But study is expensive and so is renting a place in Sydney. They are really up against it.

As I said, Marchetta is really strong on characters. I loved Martha’s netball mates, and the awkward friendships Rosie makes with the two other misfits from a mother’s coffee group. Even the house – the place on Dalhousie – has a personality. It epitomises all the family love that has gone into turning it from a the rundown ‘worst house in the street’ to something special. No wonder neither Martha or Rosie want to part with it. The story builds to a brilliant ending with a couple of nice twists.

Marchetta is a dab-hand with smart, funny dialogue, capturing the characters and also the voices of Australians of European descent, particularly the Italians. Martha’s of German descent so there’s that too. You get a great sense of place, whether it’s rural Queensland or suburban Sydney. Now that I’ve read her first book and much more recently her latest, I’m wondering why I haven’t read anything in between. I’m giving this book a four out of five.

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