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by Joanna Moran
Reviewed by Ceri Evans

I am sure that for most of us, one beloved husband or wife is more than sufficient! In Part One of this novel, as Henry Oades sets sail halfway across the world to New Zealand in the 1890s with his young wife Margaret and their two children, one beloved wife is all he has ever wanted. Settled on the North Island of New Zealand, all is well—roses grow around the porch of their rural cottage, their beautiful newborn twins are thriving—until a Maori uprising results in the kidnapping and enslavement of Margaret and the children whilst Henry is away on business.

Henry desperately searches for Margaret and the children for months, but they have disappeared into the ether. The years pass and Henry realises he must move on and either reconcile with the loss of his wife, or lose his mind. In Part Two, having transformed himself into a proficient dairy farmer in Berkeley, California, Henry learns to live again. By a serendipitous meeting, he saves Nancy, a single mother, from a fire and then marries her to protect her from the disapproval of society. Slowly Henry falls in love with Nancy and everything is tickety-boo until one day Margaret turns up on his doorstep with the children. Henry, Nancy and the conservative population of Berkeley struggle to accept the arrival of Margaret and the children.

Part Three, narrated by Nancy, Margaret and Henry in turn, documents the struggles of daily life, the prejudices and legal challenge to the family's situation, and the difficult relationship between the two wives. This is a fast paced, rollicking good novel, and it is ideal for a holiday read. On the whole I enjoyed the examination of "accidental" bigamy, which is apparently based on a true story. The lyrical descriptions of New Zealand, the mists and vivid greenery, accurately portrayed for me the wonderful landscapes of desolate plains and the beautiful, rainy fjords of Milford Sound.

The Wives of Henry Oades is not flawless; without giving away the story, it feels like some of the characters' behaviour is unnatural. It is fiction, I hear you say, it is all contrived! Yet I felt that Johanna Moran did not fully explore or account for Henry's sudden total lack of physical attraction towards Margaret, despite his previous doting love for her; she simply portrays Margaret's quiet acceptance of his disinterest and makes Henry appear to be a lustful man without any self-examination. Perhaps more ripe for criticism is the one-dimensional portrayal of the Mäori as violent savages. Again, there is little exploration of the reasons behind the Maori abduction and enslavement, nor is there any attempt to create one sympathetic Mäori tribeswoman or man.

That said, The Wives of Henry Oades is an enjoyable historical novel. Thought-provoking and gripping, it is a tirade against prejudice and religious conservatism, and a testament to the capacity of friendship and love to overcome anything.