Review: A Decline in Prophets by Sulari Gentill

It’s 1932 and the luxury ocean liner RMS Aquitania is making its way to Australia, via New York, with Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair and his travelling companions on board. The group of four left Australia some months previously after the tumultuous events depicted in A Few Right Thinking Men and have been travelling, painting and generally enjoying the world as Rowly has recuperated from being shot. Their fellow passengers include an octogenarian political activist and former head of the Theosophist movement, several other members of the movement, a Catholic Bishop and a couple of priests. When there is a grim murder on board Rowly is at the centre of things, mostly because he’s a bit too polite for his own good. The boat stops in New York before making landfall in Australia but things go from bad to worse for Rowly and his friends and at one point it looks like  poor Rowly will hardly be considered a suitable godfather for his newest nephew.

I really ought not to have enjoyed this book. Its hero, Rowly Sinclair, is the kind of world-wandering dilettante living off inherited wealth instead of the product of his own toil that should offend my lefty sensibilities. But, in what might be evidence that my principles are only skin deep, I like Rowly very much and loved the book too. Rowly is generous to all and a good and true friend to his pals (none of whom share his wealthy background). He also tries hard to fulfil the duties and obligations his family expect of him (except when it comes to marrying the string of suitable women they throw at him). His life is tinged with sadness too as his own mother does not acknowledge his existence, behaving instead as if he is his older brother who died in the war a dozen years earlier. His friends, a sculptress with whom Rowly is in love, a painter whose background is the complete opposite of Rowly’s and a plagiarising poet with Communist sympathies, are nicely fleshed out too and the relationships between the various members of the group are a real highlight of this book. There is a real Australian feel to it too

Rowland Sinclair, Milton Isaacs and Clyde Watson Jones lined up at the foot of her bed, all leaning against the rail as they asked about her health. Annie Besant regarded them warmly. It was a particularly Australian habit, she observed – to lean. Australian men seem to lean whenever possible – against walls, posts, chairs. Her late husband would have considered it offensive, slovenly, but Annie found it somehow charming…Australians had the ability to relax in any company or circumstances – they would face Armageddon itself leaning casually on a fence. It put her at ease in their presence.

Another highlight of A Decline in Prophets is the way Gentill absorbs readers in the historical period using a combination of real characters and events (each chapter begins with a news clipping or other snippet to set the mood) and delicious facts and details scattered throughout what is a gripping mystery. It doesn’t hurt that this period, falling between two world wars which seem to me be saturated by historical fiction, is somewhat under-represented in the historical fiction space. I really enjoyed the depiction of a wide range of political and social groups (including the much-maligned Freemasons) as well as the more personal experiences that might have been unique to the time. Even a visit to Sydney’s Rockwood cemetery provides an interesting insight into the social norms of the day and the meeting of Rowly’s bohemian friends and his sister-in-law’s pious Scottish relatives is an opportunity for much observational wit.

The only real problem I had with this reading experience is that I gobbled the book up too quickly and now have a long wait for the third instalment of the series. The combination of thoughtfully drawn characters, gentle but clever humour and the obvious love Gentill has for the story she wants to tell and the time period in which it is set made this a very satisfying read for me and one I would recommend widely.

I have already reviewed the first book in this series, A Few Right Thinking Men.

The book should be more widely available after the official publication date on 1 July 2011

my rating 4/5
Publisher Pantera Press [2011]
ISBN 9780980741896
Length 354 pages
Format trade paperback
Source a gift from the author