Loretta Hill’s debut novel, The Girl in Steel-Capped Boots is about Lena, graduate engineer, a city-girl through and through, who is posted to the tiny outback town of Cape Lambert outside Karratha, in the remote Pilbara region of Western Australia. Lena is assigned to a project working on one of the world’s longest ship-loading jetties, extending 2.5km out to sea and used primarily for loading iron ore. This explains the setting, but the situation is surreal: living in a project town, with 350 men and 4 other women, which is a far cry from Lena’s Perth upbringing.
There is another complication – of course – in the person of the company’s client, Dan. A perfectionist, and someone with his own secrets, Dan makes no pretense of his feelings towards Lena – he does not want her on site, or anywhere near him. And so, in this environment, Lena turns to work and makes her own success using her own ideas and work ethic. Even more than that, she earns the respect and admiration of the men at the site, despite, or because of, her engineering-with-heart attitude.
From the start the novel is detailed and richly woven, there is a wealth of detail of every aspect of getting to, and living in, the Pilbara, described from Lena’s point of view, with city eyes gazing on what seems to be just desolation and dust for miles around. However as Lena warms to the job, and starts to make a difference to the project we see the landscape being transformed in time with Lena’s own perception of herself. For there is something about her, that makes her feel that she is just role-playing, pretending to have skills that any moment now someone will see through. This is partly because of a university degree spent more at parties than at lectures, and partly because of an illicit romance in her past. Still, at Cape Lambert, there isn’t much partying – instead there is work, and as for romance – well, it’s more likely to be replaced with thinly veiled sexual harassment. Not exactly a place for a girl to let her hair down. There’s not much left to do except to make the project succeed – and Lena sets about this with determination.
Loretta Hill’s descriptions of engineering problems and solutions, and the Pilbara region in general, are detailed and immersive. It’s obvious that here is an author with passion for this side to Australia and I for one am thankful that there isn’t a sheep in sight (but there are kangaroos …!) At last, a novel that shows Australian women being smart, beautiful, and successful in a whole new setting.
Available now: Random House RRP$32.95