The first thing I did when I started writing a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard was to read all of her novels, roughly in order. I even found a rare copy of her rarest novel, Windlestraws (1916) at just the right time. But I didn’t find a copy of her second rarest novel, Moon of Desire (1941) – at least not at a price I wanted to pay – and so it languished unread, as I marched on with other more pressing things. She rated it lowly herself, explicitly writing an action-filled romance when she was short of money in the hope of it selling well and being optioned as a Hollywood film.
As the years went by, Moon of Desire became a niggling unfinished task that seemed insurmountable. I knew I would be spending hours I didn’t have in a rare book room on a novel which didn’t mean much to Katharine and was unlikely to be at all revealing. In September 2019, I visited the State Library of WA to look at some archival material which proved far more significant than I had expected – a trove of letters from Katharine to her pen-pals at the Union of Soviet Writers in Moscow. I also asked for them to bring out Moon of Desire. I finally held it in my hands. The publisher Jonathan Cape had given Katharine quite beautiful covers for Working Bullocks (1926) and Coonardoo (1929); and yet for the rather gaudy Moon of Desire, they had dressed it in a very plain dustjacket. I read a few chapters and found it better than I expected, opening with a forbidden romance between Ann and the pearler Alec in a well-evoked Broome. But the pull of the letters was too strong and I got no further.
In February I started long service leave from my part-time librarian job, and I suddenly had an extra day to work on the biography. I did another few chapters of Moon of Desire, thinking I had a lot of visits to the library left. Then Covid struck and the library shut and I lost my extra day. My timeline to finish the biography by September was suddenly a lot harder. But I worked furiously in the time I got and the chapters kept being written, a full draft by the end of June, leaving me two months of revisions. Suddenly it was mid-August and the opportunities were diminishing. I took a day off my job to finally finish Moon of Desire. It was a slog. The second half is more contrived and tiresome than the first. Everything ends up turning on a fateful meeting on the beach where the titular pearl is stolen and two people murdered, with at least three or four people hiding behind rocks etc and possibly implicated. The action moves to Singapore in part two, and the colour and the characters seem too exotic and cliched, not to mention the plot.
It was a matter of integrity I finished reading that darned book. The few placeholder sentences I’d written about it from the first chapters changed significantly after I read the whole lot. I’d been keen to emphasise the recognisiable Prichardian elements; now I needed to balance that with an acknowledgement that the contrivances are worse than her first novel, The Pioneers. I’ve written reviews for all of Prichard’s other novels on this blog; this post will have to suffice for Moon of Desire.
The unfinished business finished, I gave my biography one more read through and sent it off to the publisher on the last day of August. It’s being peer-reviewed by two scholars now, and I eagerly await their feedback. Then there should be in-house editing, some more work on the photos, an index to create, and proof-reading.