The third novel from Jane Rawson (best known for 2007’s award-winning From the Wreck), A History of Dreams is set in Adelaide at the cusp of World War II. Our heroines encounter men spouting misogynist and nationalist rhetoric in a poetry salon, with one of the men later voted into government. Historical fiction soon becomes feminist dystopia; this is an alternative history that explores what would have happened if Australia fell to fascism.
The gang is led by the fiery Audrey, a communist whose aunt taught her to concoct dreams and insert them into minds using drinkable potions. As the years pass and the government becomes more authoritarian, the Semaphore Supper Club’s sunshine Champagne parties move from discussions about organising in the workplace to planning resistance and sabotage.
Despite being set in the late 1930s, the subject matter of this book hums with contemporary concerns; when legislation outlaws women working, Phyllis happily binds her breasts and dresses as a man (“Phil”) to find a job; Esther builds a queer family, and Margaret navigates living with dear friends as they recover from trauma.
A History of Dreams draws from “We Were Going to be Different”, an oral history of a group of South Australian women called the Kosmopolitan Klub which was written by Rawson’s mother, Anne Rawson. Rawson’s grandmother, Nancy Bradley/Hirst, was part of the collective who travelled together, threw tennis parties, and vowed never to marry (though most of the group broke this rule).
Local readers will enjoy recognising locations such as Grote Street, Mile End, and the Outer Harbour train line. But as the plot pushes further into speculative fiction, it’s the retraction of women’s rights, the ideology of nationhood and the violent xenophobia that feels a little close to home, not just the book’s Adelaide setting.
Rawson has taken the character of the witch – a woman historically opposed to the patriarchal power of the state, and a deviant character uninterested in the trappings of heteronormativity – and united her with ideals of collective action for the common good. As such, this age-old archetype of feminine rebellion becomes refreshed, as a symbol of resistance to all manner of oppression.
A History of Dreams, by Jane Rawson, is published by Brio Books.
Louise Omer writes about women and religion. Her first book, Holy Woman: a divine adventure, is out with Scribe Publications in July this year.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.