Pubs are frequently the cultural epicentre of the essentially disparate community in Australian country towns, and publicans are often reliable sounding boards for townsfolk to tell their sometimes not insignificant troubles to – and even times their murky secrets. Such is certainly the case in Bunyip Bay, the fictional and sublimely picturesque country town on the coast in Western Australia where Australian bestselling author Rachael Johns has set her latest ‘rural romance’ novel, “Outback Secrets”.
Our two young adult protagonists in the novel are Henrietta (Henri) Forward and Liam Castle. Henri is a feisty, yet diminutive, agricultural pilot who usually fearlessly travels the world for her work. After a near-fatal plane crash, when she is at the controls, Henri has come home to Bunyip Bay temporarily in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Bunyip Bay is where her mother, Fiona, and her brothers – Callum and Andrew – and their families reside on the family farm, where her sister, Tilly, and family live in town, and where Henri’s best friend Frankie runs the ever-popular “Frankie’s Cafe’ in town).
Liam Castle is a ruggedly handsome American from the town of Silver Ridge in Colorado, and for close to ten years, he has been the publican of ‘The Palace’ (Bunyip Bay’s tastefully stylish pub); owning and working tirelessly in ‘The Palace’. Customers of The Palace routinely confide in Liam; as Liam expresses at one stage, “I know a lot of secrets about lots of things in this town”.
From the moment Henri defiantly sashays into The Palace on her return to Bunyip Bay, Liam ostensibly spots her, and is earnestly attracted to the outspoken Henri. When Liam realises that Henri is known in Bunyip Bay, he considers Henri “off limits”, as “When it came to romantic liaisons, Liam kept a strictly no-strings policy”.
Fiona is continually relentlessly and purposefully pressuring Henri to ‘settle down and marry’ a local boy. As Rex, a regular drinker at The Palace tells Liam, “From what I’ve heard, Fiona will only be happy when she gets her (Henri) home for good”. It is due to the persistent meddling of Fiona, and others in the town, in Henri’s love life, that Henri concocts an unashamedly brazen plan for her and Liam to fool the entire town into thinking that they are a couple. Indisputably, even the best laid plans can misfire. When Henri and Liam, after spending inordinate amounts of time together, discover that they have actually become friends and that their feelings have morphed from mutual attraction (unknown to each other) into something far deeper, the ‘train starts to leave the tracks’ as it were.
In addition to Henri and Liam’s already complicated relationship, Henri, indeed the whole town, has been unaware that Liam has been hiding from them a past tragedy in his life of Shakespearean proportions. And Henri herself has been holding her cards close to her chest regarding a former partner, and the fact that she has developed a debilitating fear of flying a plane; this of course is threatening to derail any future plans of Henry’s to continue her work as an agricultural pilot.
Can Liam and Henri find it within themselves to confront their cruelly traumatic pasts and finally declare their true feelings for each other? Or is there too much inner turbulence in them both for a ‘happy ever after’ for them?
“Outback Secrets” is at first appearances a somewhat light-hearted and familiar read; yet as the novel progresses, we as readers find ourselves being propelled down a gut-wrenchingly heartbreaking path, where we encounter subject matter including trauma, grief and mental health.
“Outback Secrets” is the fifth rural romance novel from Rachael Johns set in Bunyip Bay For all fans of Rachael Johns novels, or for anyone wanting a quintessentially Australian country yarn where love exists between two uniquely scarred, yet gleaming people, who are attempting to live the best lives they can with the cards they have been dealt, I recommend this book.