BELLA'S RUN is definitely not the sort of thing that I would normally read, but working with Margareta Osborn on her website made it nearly impossible not to notice a certain buzz around this book, which frankly, intrigued me. And every now and then, a little step away from the well worn path isn't going to kill me. Is it?
Starting BELLA'S RUN, I had no idea what to expect, and a combination of my personal disinterest in romance themes, and the amount of acclaim for the book did have me a little worried, as I am a bit of a curmudgeon who suffers from hype-hypersensitivity.
There's nothing new about romance writing being popular, and it doesn't seem like such a stretch that women, writing in Australia, who come from rural and regional areas (ie the bigger bit of the place), would be writing stories about things that they know, set in places that they inhabit, and understand and love. In fact, it's a bit of relief to find out that is happening, as it seems to makes more sense than those old bodice ripper type romances set in Regency whatever... them you'd never get me reading. No chance, no how, not even if the only other choice was a well read cornflake packet!
What immediately was obvious is not just the love of the country places and people that Osborn is writing about, but her knowledge of them both. I can't say I subscribe to any particular theories or understanding of "good" versus "bad" writing, for me what's important is whether the story being told feels authentic, the dialogue realistic and the people believable. If those three elements are present in reasonable proportion, then the occasional ham-fisted sentence or poorly crafted paragraph are neither here nor there, as far as I'm concerned. Not that I'm suggesting there's any such thing in BELLA'S RUN. On the contrary. The story flowed, the characters were engaging and real, the action nicely paced and despite the well-worn arc of love misplaced at no stage did I find myself itching to get out the editing pencil.
I'm also aware that this is fiction, and paraphrasing an author I heard once, when asked how he did his research for parts of his books... Osborn obviously makes stuff up. Having said that, I also know that some of the places, and the broad scenarios are written about from experience (not the drinking / not the swearing / I'm not sure about the canoodling with cowboys ... she did meet her husband at a High Country event <vbeg>....). But it is writing from knowledge, experience and out and out passion, that really works for this type of setting, and these types of books. There's an authenticity in amongst the fictional that glows and shines.
Not so long ago, there was a bit of an Australian crime fiction phenomena that was widely read overseas (and awarded) and discussed by Crime Fiction fans from all corners of the world. I remember at the time the minority of objections were mostly along the lines of there being nothing particularly new in the themes or the style of that particular book. At the time, our argument was, be that as it may be, this is the first time these themes have been explored in our terminology, in our context, in our style, and for that alone, the book was worthwhile, frankly, down right exciting for fans of crime fiction here. In the same way, I'd suspect that part of the attraction of BELLA'S RUN and all the other rural romance books around at the moment (and there are a lot of them - so the numbers alone are telling us something) is that context, that location, that sense of place, and the story is about us and our experience - or it's an us and experience that city people dream about. Sure part of its fictionalised (I can personally attest to a decided lack of lanky, quiet, gorgeous cowboy types standing ready to sweep pretty young girls off their feet in my particular regional neck of the woods, but if I was at all that sort of romantically inclined, I'd like to dream... why not).
I can also see some justification for the us and them of the city versus the country - the seeming convenience of the city bloke being the baddie and the country blokes being the goodies. The "other" is often used as a catalyst or a threat and goodness knows I've read more than enough books recently where the opposite is the true and the country is crowded with odd "rural types" lurking behind trees threatening the poor city people. And objected at the time mostly because of the overt sense of convenience. It seems to me that what is more important, is that concept of authenticity, and in BELLA'S RUN there were feasible reasons for just about everything and a hefty dose of fair play much later in the book. But really what we have is the context of a rural girl dealing with the other / the decision / the options / the catalyst and the black and white hats seemed to get thrown in the air on quite a few occasions.
Rural romance is a genre that really seems to have struck a chord with both local and overseas readers lately. But as much as it's not my glass of whisky, opponents or disparagers of these rural romance books, could do themselves more of a disservice than they do to the writers or readers of rural romance. Just romance, set in the bush, or the frequently dreaded "chook-lit" tag might be easy ways to dismiss these sorts of books, but on the other hand, there is obviously a strong attraction here. If BELLA'S RUN and it's compatriots are calling readers to read, and writers are getting the obvious joy that I see in Margareta Osborn in writing them, then all power to the joy of reading and writing and ignore the disparagers is all I can say.