In 1930s Britain, a socially inadequate young woman marries an equally awkward young man. His ambitions take them to the Australian Outback, the middle of nowhere, to be greeted by a mixture of amazement, disdain and disbelief by both whites and aboriginals.
To further compound their difficulties they have a daughter, who enters their odd little life and makes it odder still. The mother is a Shakespeare-quoting nervous wreck, the father an over-ambitious, self-deceiver and their parenting style is eclectic, to say the least. The young girl finds companionship with the aboriginal servants and the autistic son of the ranchers from whom they rent their shack of a home.
The combined effects of the climate, post natal depression and sheer misery drive the mother to a nervous breakdown and she is taken to hospital to recover. The father compensates by raping the aboriginals and assiduously following the war in Europe. The daughter flounders along, saved in part by the sisterhood she builds with the new aboriginal servant and partly by the books that she devours.
This untenable situation ends abruptly when the father is stabbed. Mother, daughter and servant are all in the room but it is the servant who is taken away by the police. The daughter is left unable to speak without a stutter while the mother seems more relaxed, almost relieved. But the relationship between mother and daughter does not improve.
The war and the intervention of the Japanese drives them south to Perth where the mother tries to create a more normal life but is again hospitalised. This is the saving of the daughter, her new foster parents not only provide security and stability and a level of love and care she has never experienced, but also seek help for her stutter.
In dealing with her stutter, she is also able to unlock in her mind what happened the day her father died. She realises that she has thought but not admitted to herself that her mother killed her father and that the servant was unfairly arrested. The truth is that she herself murdered her father and that her mother's awkward attempts at making a better life for her have been her efforts to let her daughter know that she should not feel guilty.
After tracking down the servant in her reform school, the daughter tries to set things straight but is disappointed by the servant's unemotional response. The closure she has been seeking is not forthcoming and when the servant dies of pneumonia she is left feeling dissatisfied and drifting.
The striking feature of the novel is liberal use of Shakespeare throughout, not just the plays but the poetry too, Shakespeare is how the mother expresses her anger; she is quoting Shakespeare as her husband bleeds to death. Shakespeare is how the daughter regains her language. Clearly the author is well read in this area and this is a great device for a novel, illustrating how one author can be used to reflect and illuminate such a diverse range of experiences and emotions.
The story is not so strong. Fairly predictable, an acceptable range of characters (though I found the autistic son a somewhat odd addition), a reasonably unique view on both the outback and on the war but no twists or elements that really stand out.
The strength of the novel is the language, not just the Shakespeare but Jones' own language. The descriptions of the outback are original enough to catch the ear. For instance the descriptions of the aboriginal meeting places at river beds, the unlaboured descriptions of their language, their walkabouts and their extended family structures. Somehow she managed to take a bleak tale (you never for a minute think there will be a happy ending, not for mother or for daughter) and give it enough warmth and depth and colour to keep you engaged.
And the title? At the very end of the novel, as the daughter reflects on the dissatisfaction she feels with her reconciliation (or lack of it) with the servant, it finally dawns on her that the one thing she never said to her was "Sorry".