Book Review: The Opal Dragonfly by Julian Leatherdale

Title: The Opal Dragonfly by Julian Leatherdale
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Publication Date: 1st March 2018
Genre: Historical Fiction

September, 1851. Sydney, city of secrets and gossip. Seventeen-year-old Isobel Macleod is determined to save her father because she loves him. But when she dares to trespass in a forbidden male world, she will be plunged into social disgrace. A wave of ill fortune threatens to swallow up her family and their stately home, Rosemount Hall, ‘the finest house in the colony’ on the foreshores of Sydney Harbour. Is Isobel to blame for her family’s fate or does the cause lie further in the past? When Isobel was four, Major Macleod returned from an expedition with two ‘souvenirs’: an Aboriginal girl who became her friend and two opals fashioned into a dragonfly brooch for her mother. When Isobel inherits this ‘unlucky’ heirloom, she wonders if the terrible dreams it summons are a curse or a gift. Now Isobel’s hopes for her future depend on a charming bohemian who encourages her hidden passion to become an artist. Will she now be permanently exiled from her family home? Or will she be transformed into a new self, like a magnificent dragonfly emerging into the sunlight? 

A daughter sacrifices her reputation, two men bid for the love of a woman, freedom is found in the heart of a dust storm, a father’s legacy reveals past crimes. Inspired by Elizabeth Bay House and the other grand villas of Sydney’s Woolloomooloo Hill, The Opal Dragonfly tells the bittersweet story of an ambitious family’s fall from grace and a brave young woman’s struggle to find her true self.


My Review:

The Opal dragonfly is a long book with a lot of fascinating historical detail about the growth period of the Sydney colony during the 1800s. The protagonist is Isobel, the youngest daughter of the surveyor-general of NSW. She grows up in a life of distinct privilege in the finest house in the colony – Rosemount (based on Elizabeth Bay House). The story starts promising, with Isobel risking shame in order to stop her father from dying in a duel. However it takes a good portion of the book to actually get to that point, as Isobel recounts her personal history on the way from her house. For me, this slowed the first half of the book down and I struggled to get through it. The aftermath of Isobel’s actions is what drives the remainder of the story, and was the better part of the book.

Isobel as a main character was naive and annoying. Her wealthy upbringing most likely had something to do with that, but I found it hard to sympathise with her when her seemingly perfect life began to fall apart. The secondary cast was well thought out. I was impressed to read the author had based quite a few of them on many historical figures who actually lived during the 1800s. However, Ballandella’s inclusion was a clear attempt at acknowledging the displacement of aboriginals from their homelands during the early years of the colony, and it was handled in a clunky manner. The native’s friendship with Isobel was mainly used as a catalyst for other events. We never really got to know Ballandella or understand how she felt about her displacement, and we never really found out what happened to her after she left Rosemount. It was a missed opportunity given she was supposed to be friends with Isobel, and given what Isobel discovers about her fathers expeditions later in the book.

Most of the novel ambles along at a slow and steady pace, but the last ten percent rushed at breakneck speed, and one event in particular was quite fantastical (read unbelievable). The ending itself left me feeling slightly disappointed as it wasn’t written primarily from Isobel’s viewpoint and instead introduced a new character to explain what happened. However I appreciate the deviation the story took from the expected path.

If you love historical fiction with a lot of detail, you might enjoy The Opal Dragonfly.