A messy, loud Australian family and an aloof, snobby American family who have nothing in common except the marriage of their daughters are stuck for six weeks on a tropical island off Queensland when a nearby volcano erupts.
Georgia Clark wrote the novels It Had to Be You, The Regulars, The Bucket List, and others. She is the host and founder of the popular storytelling night, Generation Women. A native Australian, she lives in Brooklyn with her hot wife and a fridge full of cheese. Want more? GeorgiaClark.com.
The Kelly and Lee families meet up for a long weekend on Australia's Mun'dai island, a protected ecoresort with limited guests. Helped along by resort caretaker, Liss, and Indigenous island caretaker, Jarrah, the two families are prepared for a luxurious, if slightly awkward, weekend. Then a nearby volcano explodes, causing a tsunami that wipes out transportation to Australia and most of the electricity (though not the wifi), and stranding everyone on the island for six weeks. It's enough time for married couple Matty Kelly and Parker Lee to decide if they really want children, for sister Amelia to explore her attraction to Liss, and for fathers Randall and Glen to develop a secret handshake. In Clark's latest, following It Had to Be You (2021), relationships ebb and flow surrounded by the harsh beauty of the fictional island. There are moments of danger (a run-in with a crocodile, a literal cliffhanger), but nothing compares to the emotional upheaval the characters experience, right through to the satisfying conclusion. For fans of the character-driven, slyly funny work of Liane Moriarty and Jennifer Weiner. Copyright 2022 Booklist Reviews.
Stepping over the threshold of the house that faced the ocean felt like entering an abandoned palace: illicit loveliness in a life that wasn't hers. It was so far from what Amelia Kelly understood a rental house to be that her definition of the concept was already evolving.
Press a button, and cream-colored blinds descended from the ceiling like a magic trick. The bathrooms were a sparkling marvel of marble as white as the moon. Ten different types of tea lined the drawer below the needlessly complicated espresso machine, each one organic and elegantly named: Rich Maple Chai, a love affair of sweet and spicy. The house hummed with the quiet efficiency of something beautiful and well-made. There was no trace of past tenants; someone had wiped away every fingerprint from the sparkling glass, every crumb from the polished wood floorboards. Like a hostess who greets her guests with immaculate makeup and a tray of cocktails, the house made being ready look easy.
Amelia hefted the three bags of groceries onto the kitchen counter-handsome slate-then slid the balcony door open and stepped outside. On the white sandy beach in front, red-and-white-striped deck chairs and beach umbrellas. A salt-scented breeze moved the soft needles of the casuarina trees. The only sounds were the gentle wash of the tide and the musical lilt of birdsong. Each of the seven rental houses on Lady Lushington Island faced the gumball-blue waters of Pigface Bay.
A thrill fizzed up Amelia's body. The idea of impressing James made her feel slightly giddy, day drunk. She unpacked, ensuring the five new frilly bikinis purchased for her boyfriend's appreciation would be the first things he saw hanging in their closet, like flirty showgirls awaiting their cue. The bright, colorful native flowers-waratahs, banksias, and bottlebrush, purchased at a farmers market on the mainland-were split into two vases. One on the raw-edge dining table for everyone to enjoy, and the other by the double bed she and James would be sharing. She figured out the Wi-Fi and the smart TV and put away a selection of everyone's favorite foods. Surprising and delighting her best-loved people through small, altruistic acts gave Amelia a solid sense of well-being. It was so easy to do, it quietly perplexed her why it wasn't a more widespread practice.
The house-it was called Kunyam-sat on a slight rise overlooking the bay. The ground floor had a small gym and a kid's bedroom, neither of which she assumed her family would be using. An interior flight of wide, lightwood stairs led up to the majestic, open-plan main space on the second floor: kitchen, dining room table and sofa, two bedrooms, plus the balcony, held up on stilts. Another flight of stairs led up to the third-floor master suite.
The door to the suite was constructed from a single slab of red-brown wood. The stainless-steel handle was cool to the touch. Amelia had grown up reading books about plucky girls with big hearts who never met a barrier they didn't surmount. She had no reason to go into the master bedroom except her own curiosity and, perhaps, a dash of self-sabotage. The door opened soundlessly into the most beautiful bedroom she'd ever seen in real life. Wonder and envy made the younger Kelly sister suck in a breath.
The bed was the size of a ship, the tub big enough for a dinner party. Colorful Indigenous art hung above a small desk, a short blurb about the artist neatly stenciled onto the wall. There was even a private deck, which offered the same view as the larger balcony downstairs, but the added elevation expanded the perspective. It felt like something out of Vogue, in the travel section that drooled over wildly unattainable lives.
But today, this was her life.
Well, the master suite wasn't her life. The master had never been her life-not once.
But maybe, it would be soon.
The master's earthy linens didn't look like hotel sheets. They looked like normal sheets-normal if you were successful and lived with a spouse, not in a messy Sydney sharehouse with four other roommates. Amelia peeled the top sheet back and hopped in, reveling in the extra space and the titillation of being somewhere she shouldn't.
You could really do things in a bed this size.
James Smith was a leading man, not one of the immature boys she'd wasted her love on in the past. He inhabited his life with intention and control. They weren't officially engaged. Yet. But the idea that James seemed to believe his world and hers were at enough of an equilibrium they might have a future together filled Amelia with almost guilty elation. It was a reflection, she hoped, of how even though her life didn't feel like a culmination of hard work and ambitious decisions, like her sister's, it would all turn out for the best.
Her boyfriend was supposed to have traveled up with her, but a last-minute work dinner postponed his plans. Amelia had accepted his sincere apology graciously. Gracious was how she imagined a wife would be about her husband's important work commitments. All Amelia wanted from the three nights on Lady Lush was for her extended family to all love James as much as she did. For James to be impressed by her extra effort and good taste and emotional maturity. For James to be impressed by her, period. For them to get one step closer to her own happily-ever-after.
Amelia Smith. The idea flicked a quick, slightly desperate feeling around her throat.
Maybe by the next family vacation, Mrs. Smith could snag the master.
Amelia remade the bed and trotted back down to the main space on the second floor, settling in the expensive-feeling leather sectional. It wasn't a cheap holiday. Three nights on Mun'dai cost two months' rent, which the sisters were splitting. (James had offered to kick in, which Amelia heroically declined, a move she was vaguely regretting, given the anemic state of her bank account.) But the money was for a good cause.
Lady Lushington Island had always been the traditional land of the Butchulla people, pronounced "But-cha-la": one of more than five hundred Indigenous Australian clans. Following an extended native title case a decade before, all three thousand acres were administratively returned to the Butchulla, descendants of the tribe that had lived on the island for thousands of years prior to its "discovery" (read: invasion) by white settlers in the 1800s. In order to protect the geographic integrity and many sacred sites, the Butchulla people sensibly and cleverly decided to allow a small number of yearly visitors to the island, capped by the number of rental houses. A form of ecotourism-the strategy ensured tourists valued the island by allowing a limited number of them to see it and maintain its reputation as a beautiful, worthy place, as well as making enough money from the visitors to preserve it. Amelia had to sign a contract ensuring her family wouldn't take so much as a seedpod with them. Indigenous Australians were allowed to hunt, fish, and camp on the island year-round, and could book the houses at a generous discount. For everyone else, the price of paradise was high. But clearly, worth it. Even the sofa felt like sinking into a marshmallowy dream.
Each house had an informational binder detailing rules, FAQs, and a detailed map. Mun'dai was roughly crescent-shaped, like a C-fat at the bottom and skinny at the top. The seven rental houses were all on the eastern-facing Blinky Beach, which looked onto Pigface Bay, named for the ubiquitous flowering ground creeper whose purple-pink and yellow blooms looked nothing like a swine's snout.
Amelia scanned a handwritten welcome note.
Hello, Amelia & Co!
Welcome to Mun'dai, the traditional land of the Butchulla people. Your house is Kunyam, and you'll find everything you need to know about your stay in the binder. Email, or come by the Caretaker Cabin (indicated on the map), with any questions, requests, or concerns.
Per Butchulla law, "What is good for the land comes first; if you have plenty, you must share; and if it's not yours, you shall not take."
Enjoy your stay in this extraordinary place.
There was more information enclosed: a mention of the Barefoot Bar, a casual beach bar open from 5:00 p.m.; warnings about the brumbies (free-roaming horses, which despite being feral still ignited every visitor's Black Beauty dreams) and dingoes (native wild dogs that must not be approached, fed, insulted, looked directly in the eye, referred to by their first name, etc.); tide times and canoe rental hours; a map of the island's Indigenous sites; and details about the food. Each house could indicate the time they wanted their daily meal kit dropped off, a mix of ready-to-eat foods and easy-to-prepare meals. Did she have enough time to meet Caretaker Liss to discuss the menu? It was only listed as "a mouthwatering array of dishes that showcased Australia's best seasonal fare." Matty had mentioned wanting fresh Queensland shellfish in every call since they booked, and Amelia knew from experience her big sister would require a lot of fresh lime on the side.
Just as Amelia's eyes found the time-3:12 p.m.-the ferry horn wailed, as if heralding an arriving army. There, pulling into the long wharf at the other end of Blinky Beach, her sister was here, her family was here!
Amelia threw a kimono cover-up over her cutoffs and bikini and flew down the stairs, out the front door, and onto the beach. She was most comfortable in her body when it was moving, in the air, in the world. She couldn't help but let out a yell of pure joy. The Japanese group waiting to board smiled easily at her as Amelia galloped up the old wooden wharf, as did the gaggle of women about her age who looked sunburned and very hungover.
Matty was first off the ferry. Amelia threw herself into her sister's outstretched arms. "You're here, you're here, you're here!"
The sisters laughed and jumped and squealed, not caring at all about the commotion they were causing. Amelia hadn't seen her mouthy, fabulous, skipped-a-grade sister in person since Matty's wedding last year. And now she was back in Australia for good.
"Animal!" Matty laughed, using Amelia's pet name. She pushed her sister back to get a good look at her. "You're so blond. And thin, Jesus, I can feel your ribs. Fuck, it's gorgeous here, look at the water. Where's your lover?"
"Shut up, I had a cheeseburger last Monday. He had a work thing come up, he'll be here tomorrow." Amelia hugged her sister's wife. Only Parker Lee could look so put together and, yes, fresh, after a punishing twenty-seven-hour flight halfway around the planet. New York to Brisbane via L.A., and her white button-down was still crisp. "Hi, Parks! It's so good to see you!"
"You too." Parker's hug back was quick but warm. "Wow." She admired the island. "It's even nicer than the pictures. James has a work thing?"
"A dinner," Amelia said. "With clients." That detail was improvised. Amelia didn't want the two women to realize she didn't understand her boyfriend's job: hedge fund something-or-other. James lived in Melbourne, a one-and-a-half-hour flight from Sydney. He came up one or two days a week for work. Amelia's life had revolved around romantic, sex-stuffed hotel stays for almost six months.
Amelia's mum, Jules, was next off the ferry, wrangling overfull tote bags. Her mum's unruly curls were mostly contained under a practical and deeply unfashionable straw hat from Bunnings, the national Home Depot-esque chain. Cargo shorts, well-worn boots: Amelia felt a tap of worry. Her mum had brought nicer clothes than that, right?
"Muffin!" Jules embraced Amelia, as if they hadn't just seen each other for Sunday dinner last week. "You look lovely. Where's James?"
"Work thing," Amelia repeated, grabbing the handle of her sister's carry-on. "He'll be here tomorrow morning, he's really sorry."
"Buggar!" Jules looked crestfallen. "We saved him some of our chips from lunch: he seemed to like them so much at Flying Fish. Glen! Where are those chips?"
"Chips?" With his slightly hunched shoulders and thinning brown hair, Amelia's father always looked a bit like an absentminded physics professor, even though he was a sharply minded, if retired, electrical engineer.
"Yes, the chips we were saving for James!" Jules sounded annoyed.
"James isn't coming till tomorrow." Matty put on a pair of oversized sunglasses that gave her the look of an eccentric celebrity on vacation. "Work thing."
Glen's gaze moved from the wharf's bright Welcome to Country! informational placard to a pair of masked boobies, the birds carouseling above the island's thick canopy of trees. "I didn't realize we were saving the chips for James."
"Well, it doesn't matter now, he's not coming till tomorrow!" Jules exclaimed. "Amelia, are you wearing sunscreen? Matty, did you reapply? Do the Lees need a hand with their bags? Gosh, the energy here is incredible. I can't believe we didn't keep those chips!"
"I have the fries." Parker produced the greasy bag seemingly from nowhere and held them at arm's length with the self-possession of someone unlikely to ever sneak a greasy chip.
"Oh good, I'm starving." Matty grabbed a handful of what were clearly soggy, ordinary chips.
For the first time since hearing of James's delay, Amelia was grateful. Imagine giving James Smith, a man who understood the global financial markets and wore the same brand of watch as Ryan Reynolds, a sad bag of cold, crap chips.
"C'mon, Animal." Matty tugged her away from the confusion of suitcases and arriving and departing guests, heading down the wharf. "Let's go for a swim."