The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline

Rating: 4/5

What It’s About:

Seduced by her employer’s son, Evangeline, a naïve young governess in early nineteenth-century London, is discharged when her pregnancy is discovered and sent to the notorious Newgate Prison. After months in the fetid, overcrowded jail, she learns she is sentenced to “the land beyond the seas,” Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony in Australia. Though uncertain of what awaits, Evangeline knows one thing: the child she carries will be born on the months-long voyage to this distant land.

During the journey on a repurposed slave ship, the Medea, Evangeline strikes up a friendship with Hazel, a girl little older than her former pupils who was sentenced to seven years transport for stealing a silver spoon. Canny where Evangeline is guileless, Hazel—a skilled midwife and herbalist—is soon offering home remedies to both prisoners and sailors in return for a variety of favors.

Though Australia has been home to Aboriginal people for more than 50,000 years, the British government in the 1840s considers its fledgling colony uninhabited and unsettled, and views the natives as an unpleasant nuisance. By the time the Medea arrives, many of them have been forcibly relocated, their land seized by white colonists. One of these relocated people is Mathinna, the orphaned daughter of the Chief of the Lowreenne tribe, who has been adopted by the new governor of Van Diemen’s Land.

In this gorgeous novel, Christina Baker Kline brilliantly recreates the beginnings of a new society in a beautiful and challenging land, telling the story of Australia from a fresh perspective, through the experiences of Evangeline, Hazel, and Mathinna. While life in Australia is punishing and often brutally unfair, it is also, for some, an opportunity: for redemption, for a new way of life, for unimagined freedom. Told in exquisite detail and incisive prose, The Exiles is a story of grace born from hardship, the unbreakable bonds of female friendships, and the unfettering of legacy.

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What I liked

There was so much to love about The Exiles! I was not expecting to like it as much as I did. There were tons of new story elements that I experienced with this book. All of the characters were well written and complex. The protagonists, supporting characters, and antagonists all had great roles in the story. I loved the multi-layered relationships the convict women had with each other.

The time period and multiple settings in The Exiles were incredibly interesting to me. It was eye opening to see how societies treated the poor and/or working class, convicts, and their children. The gut wrenching (and often inhumane) conditions that women and their children had to endure throughout the story was sad but fascinating. There were parts that were so grueling that made me emotional and sometimes sick to my stomach. This book made me think more about reform for prison conditions and the treatment convicts.

The pacing of the story was fairly steady, except for the parts that I’ll discuss in the next section. There was a nice mix of moments that built up the character development and adrenaline filled moments that kept me engaged. I also was very happy with the ending of the story and how the characters ended up. I audiobook production of this book was high quality and the narrator did great work.

What I didn’t like

The main thing I didn’t like about The Exiles was the parts of the story told from the point of view of Mathinna’s character. Her chapters felt like they didn’t quite fit into the story. And it took too long for Mathinna and Hazel to finally cross paths. The aspect of British imperialism and the experiences of the Aboriginal people was very interesting. Mathinna’s character and the story of her people have the potential to have an entire book of their own and is something I would definitely read.

Final Thoughts

I’m really glad that I discovered The Exiles on my library’s Libby app. There were several elements of the book that were first time experiences for me. The characters went through such a long journey and had to overcome many obstacles. Reading this book felt like experiencing an epic story. The story and audiobook narration was so good that I listened to it any chance that I could get! You might enjoy this book if you have interests in:

  • stories with complex female characters
  • 19th century England and Australia
  • history of penal codes, prison conditions, and female convicts

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear what you thought.

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