In 2015, Australian author Eleanor Limprecht wrote a novel based on the life of an early female inmate in Sydney’s Long Bay jail at the turn of the century. Just down the road from Long Bay was another type of prison. The lazarette at the Coast Hospital was an area isolated from the hospital, which itself was on the outskirts of Sydney, where people with leprosy (now called Hansen’s Disease) were sent to be quarantined. In The Coast, Limprecht takes readers into the lazarette but also considers the global response to leprosy in the first quarter of the twentieth century.
It is 1910, Hilda is nine, living with her grandmother, father and siblings in Northern New South Wales when the local doctor suspects she has leprosy. She is bundled off to Sydney, to the lazarette at the Coast Hospital. Her mother is already living there and Hilda will spend the rest of her life there but will become ‘Alice’, as inmates at the lazarette are encouraged to take on new identities. At the same time in Western New South Wales, a part Aboriginal boy called Jack is taken away from his family to be educated at a Mission school. Jack ends up fighting with the Light Horse Brigade in World War One but when he returns from the war with leprosy he also finds himself quarantined on a leper colony island off the coast of Queensland. Eventually, Jack, now calling himself Guy, and Alice, find each other.
The Coast is detailed and engaging historical fiction. There is not much to drive the plot other than following Alice’s life and the lives of those around her – her mother, the doctor who becomes like a surrogate father to her, her brother who also ends up in the lazarette and, of course, Jack. Alice spends almost her whole life in the lazarette, put there by punitive health orders driven by community superstition rather than the science. There is a poignancy to her life but it is also a study of hope and resilience.
All that remains of the lazarette today is the Coast Hospital cemetery where many of the inmates of the Coast Hospital lazarette were buried. In The Coast, Limprecht manages to shine a light on their mainly hidden, or at least unknown, history with a clear eyed compassion and deep understanding of the past.