Tag Archives: historical novel

Southern Cross the Dog (2013) – Bill CHENG

The recent win by 12 Years a Slave at the Oscars has once again reminded us all that the United States is a great nation built on a terrible past. The complete and utter subjugation of one group of people to do the nation building of another is a scar that has still not healed in the United States. Bill Cheng attempts to unpack just a tiny part of this history in his debut novel, Southern Cross the Dog. (I’m not going to lie—I picked this up almost exclusively for its title. I’m a patriotic sucker like that.)

After the Great Flood of 1927, Robert Chatham is left alone. As he drifts around Mississippi, he finds that being an outsider in the deep south is not easy.

There is no question as to who the villains are in this piece. Off the top of my head, I can think of no white character that is kind to a black character for any extended period of time. And, one supposes, this is historically accurate. Though we might be in the early twentieth century here, we are closer in culture to 12 Years a Slave than we are to speeches about dreams.

And yet, despite the fact that this part of history is ripe for telling stories of injustice and heartbreak, Southern Cross feels somehow soulless. There is no question that the writing is excellent—Cheng’s evocation of a time and place is near flawless—but one can never feel truly close to these characters. Perhaps it is the constant narrative jumps—just as you get close to one person, you have to recalibrate your emotions to prepare for another depressing tale. These kinds of non-chronological narratives can allow authors to play with reader perceptions of events and characters, but the fact that Robert seems never to change in each episode leaves you wondering why bother doing it in the first place.

This is not to say there are not moments when Cheng’s ability to write matches his ability to evoke a human response from his characters. Sketches from Robert’s youth are gorgeous—there is one in particular where the three Chatham men are out hunting, only to be stumbled upon by a duo of white men who have no qualms about beating young black men to remind them of their place. It’s horrific, and the pain of the injustice of this society is keenly felt, unlike in many other places through the novel.

I am curious to see what Cheng does next. If he returns to this Southern Gothic-style tale, I would love to see him try and push the boundaries a little further. Though the politics and argument are there, they are not moulded into a piece of fiction that grabs you by the throat, that makes you feel for these people. Fiction is more than pretty words and big ideas—it’s about making your reader feel something.

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The Dead Lake (2011) – Hamid ISMAILOV

A new year, a new Peirene subscription. And while earlier series tended towards the Scandinavian, this year’s Coming of Age series takes us to Russia and Libya—though admittedly, still through the European languages of Russian and French. Still, it’s nice to see this publishing house move beyond their original remit. Hopefully it keeps things fresh and exciting.

When Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union, its vast swathes of steppe were used to test nuclear weapons. In a tiny village near one of the anonymous test sites, Yerzhan is growing into a man. But it’s not easy to live in the literal shadow of nuclear weapons, and when Yerzhan stops growing just as he enters his teens, he begins to worry.

Though they are only tangentially related to the goings on of the politics of the Cold War, the spectre of the 1960s—and everything that came with it—lingers over these characters, in a way unlike any novel set in America, or even metropolitan Russia at the time. The war itself means nothing to their daily lives (other than the occasional piece of meaningless propaganda from the Soviets), and yet they feel the effects of it every day. They live close to an atomic test site, and their lives are punctuated by occasional nuclear explosions in the not-so-distant distance. Donkeys, horses and wolves all sense when an explosion is about to take place, and act as warning triggers for the humans. Even still, a nuclear explosion is nothing to be sneezed at, and the threat of being burned alive hangs over them like the heavy mushroom clouds that form after an experiment has been completed.

These tests have made the landscape even more desolate than it originally was.  More than anything, this work is an evocation of the landscape that forms the backdrop to the action. Ismailov paints a vivid picture of the desolately beautiful Kazakh steppe ruined by constant bombardment from these man-made . From grey nights to deserted ghost towns, there is a sense that these families are living in a barren land, a land that simply is not fit for humanity. And without spoiling anything, the bleak last line certainly feeds into that theme.

This sense of oppression filters through to the characters and their lives. From a young age, it is clear that Yerzhan, has a talent for music. He is quickly given the nickname Wunderkind (buldur kimdir in Kazakh) by his family, and is even given lessons by a man in the village who studied music in the capital. And yet, despite his obvious talent, when he is given the chance to move to the city to keep learning, his family deem it unnecessary. Instead, he continues to study in the backwater that is his village.

His anger at not being able to grow any more, then, is not just frustration at not being physically larger. At every turn, his emotional and cultural growth is stunted by the Soviets using his backyard as a dumping ground for their nuclear tests. He is unable to purse the career he wants, he is unable to live the lie he wants, and he cannot love the girl he loves without constant, niggling self-doubt.

Ignoring the (mostly) useless framing story about two men meeting on a train, The Dead Lake is a small window into a time and place untouched by Western concern, and Ismailove is not afraid of asking big questions. What happens to people outside the spheres of influence in a huge global movement? Deprived of any opportunity to better themselves, or to learn something new, or to dream large, how are people past even the fringes of society able to have a good life? Ismailov’s conclusions are a reminder of the ripple effect of war—it is not just those fighting who are affected, but all who are drawn into the vortex.

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Chasing the King of Hearts (2006) – Hanna KRALL

So often, Holocaust literature seems to concern itself with trying to tie in personal experiences with a wider historical context. Determined to highlight the horrors of the entire event, authors lost sight of the small stories that also took place during this time. It is one of these small stories that Hanna Krall tells in her short novel, Chasing the King of Hearts.

Izolda’s husband has been captured. And in 1942 Warsaw, this is not good news for Jewish people. Determined to find her true love, Izolda begins to plot to get him back. And nothing will stop her.

In fact, it is questionable whether we can even term this a Holocost novel. More than anything, this is a novel of undying love, and the power that can be taken from love. Izolda is so certain of her love for her husband, and of her finding him, that she seems almost impervious to the events around her. Though she is, in turn, captured by the Gestapo, imprisoned, tortured, tattooed, and eventually taken to Auschwitz, she holds on to one mission.

She seems so impervious, in fact, to all of these things, that Izolda can often be hard to get a grip on as a lead character. Her stubborn refusal to let anything affect her search for her husband makes her both admirable and frustratingly opaque. She is not the stereotypical wife of a man who has been captured—she has a plan, a way to execute it, and the determination to do so. But in not letting her main character react to anything, Krall denies us the opportunity to see how this context affects human relationships outside of the marriage.

It is not until after the war, when she is living in Israel with her Hebrew-speaking granddaughters in the above-mentioned flashforwards, that she is able to feel once again. And what she feels is sadness. Not for what happened to her, but for the fact that her granddaughters do not understand. Since she does not speak Hebrew, and they don’t speak Polish, there is no way for her to communicate her true feelings. Perhaps this is the point Krall is trying to make. We cannot understand the Holocaust because we weren’t there.

This is compounded by the short chapters that are perhaps symptomatic of a short novel. These slivers of narrative are almost uniformly brilliant: some further the plot, others are flashforwards to Izolas’s future, others still are meditations on life, religion and humanity in times of war. And yet the whole somehow remains less than the sum of its parts.

For all its moments of brilliance (and there are quite a few), Chasing the King of Hearts is not an easy novel to like. Led by a character who is determined not to let anyone in, Krall goes almost too far down this path and doesn’t allow the reader a chance to get to know or sympathise with Izolda. And while unlikeable characters are a valid part of literature, characters who fail to make a connection with the reader are not.

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Death of a River Guide (1994) – Richard FLANAGAN

Aljaz Cosini is in something of a spot of bother. He is lying at the bottom of the Franklin River, trapped under a rock. He is dying. But something strange is happening. Instead of blacking out, he finds himself having visions he cannot control. As the history of his ancestors flashes before his eyes, he is forced to examine his own life.

Those of us on the mainland have a tendency to mock Tasmania, I think, for a whole variety of reasons. But there is something to be said for the strength of a Tasmanian identity over an Australian identity, and Flanagan does his darndest in this novel to create a Tasmanian literature, removed from mainstream Australian literature.

There are, of course, similarities to what we might term traditional tropes of Australian literature: a violent colonial history; an uneasy relationship between white and non-white Australians; and a contemporary society struggling to come to terms with these things. But Flanagan reappropriates these into a uniquely Tasmanian context, tracking them through almost the entire history of the tiny island, as well as through the history of the people throughout history who have emigrated to the land to find a new life.

It’s startling (and, quite frankly, a little depressing) to realise that Death of a River Guide is Flanagan’s first novel. Not only is he in complete command of the language—in his descriptions of Aljaz’s interiority as well as his bountiful descriptions of the Franklin River and its surroundings—but structurally, too, the novel is almost perfect. The series of seemingly random flashbacks through Tasmanian history experienced by Aljaz as he lays dying slowly shimmer into order. As the history of Tasmania becomes the history of his ancestors, so too do the dark secrets of Tasmanian history become the dark secrets of Aljaz’s family. Things Tasmania has tried to hide are things hidden from Aljaz as a child, but like all family secrets, they eventually come out.

Again and again, Flanagan connects Aljaz’s feeling of isolation to his time away from the Tasmanian landscape. It is only when Aljaz comes home, to where he belongs, that he is able to feel calm once again, and come to terms with what has happened to him. In fact, it is not until the very end of the novel when Aljaz is able to fully accept his life, mistakes and all. It takes his coming to a point just moments before death at the hands of the natural environment to allow himself forgiveness. Aljaz’s existential epiphany comes as he is submersed in a uniquely Tasmanian river. It’s a powerful image, and one that hijacks tradition and reappropriates it into an Antipodean context.

I don’t think Richard Flanagan wants us all to almost drown in a freezing river on the west coast of Tasmania, but he certainly wants us to think more closely about the relationships between individuality, family, nature and history. Death of a River Guide deals deftly with the complexity of these relationships, and proves that Richard Flanagan is one of the best contemporary Australian novelists.

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Harvest (2013) – Jim CRACE

I have never read Jim Crace before. Nay, I had never even heard of Jim Crace before he was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Crace has said that Harvest will be his last novel, though I’m not sure I ever believe an artist when they say they’re done.

The harvest is over. The townspeople are ready to celebrate the end of the season with their annual Gleaning, the party to end all parties. But on the morning of the celebrations, two things happen. The first is an act of arson. The second is the arrival of a trio of unwelcome strangers. As the town tries to decide if the two are connected, events rapidly escalate.

The sense of unease that defines this novel starts almost on the first page. A barn is set on fire, and though our narrator believes it to be the work of several local young hooligans, they deny any connection. Then, three strangers turn up—and the townspeople are quick to draw their own conclusions about the interlopers.

As an Australian in 2013,  it’s hard not to read this novel without thinking of the current political discourse, which has found itself stuck in a race to the bottom, where we do everything in our power to stop a few thousand people from entering our country because they are fleeing persecution. So when faced with a novel that is exactly about the relationship between the us and the them, it’s hard not to find points of resonance. Of particular interest is the—to my eyes—wild overreach in terms of punishment metered out to the two men who are caught after the barn fire is put out.

Stuck in the middle of this war is Walter. Though he has lived in the town for many years, he was not born there, and as such, is still viewed with some suspicion by many of the townspeople who were born and raised there. But at the same time, to the three interlopers, he is nothing but another faceless member of a harsh village. Perhaps this is why, at the beginning of the novel, he is hesitant to call out the three he believes to have actually caused the fire. And, as has been proven through history again and again, when a good person fails to speak up, a situation can rapidly get out of hand, and violence ensues.

There is a danger when an author decides to write an historical novel in olde-worlde English. Too often, it comes off either as tone deaf, or so cloyingly twee, you want to throw it against a wall. Fortunately, Crace does not put a step wrong in his evocation, not only of an historical mindset, but of an historical English, complete with words and phrases that are no longer common.

At the time of writing, Harvest is the favourite to win this year’s prize. I’ve still only read a handful of novels, and at the moment, it’s certainly in my top two or three. On the surface, this is a simple novel about a crime that goes horribly wrong, but dig a little deeper, and you find a novel trying to grapple with timeless themes, and perhaps advocating for a little more kindness in our lives.

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The Islands (1999) – Carlos GAMERRO

I am young enough to have a negligible understanding of the Falklands War. If you were to ask me to point to them on a map, I would struggle. If you asked me why two countries on opposite sides of the world were fighting of what appear to be some rocks in the ocean, I probably couldn’t give you an answer. I couldn’t tell you if England or Argentina had a more legitimate claim to them. Please bear this in mind as I review a huge Argentinian novel about the Falklands War.

It’s been ten years since the end of Falklands War. Felipe Félix was there, but has now become a slacker computer hacker, spending much of his time high. One day, he is summoned to the office of a very rich, very powerful and very secretive. The man has a job for him—find the person his son killed. As Felipe digs down, he finds that, for a lot of people, the war hasn’t ended, and that he is slowly being drawn back in.

There is no way to adequately describe what Gamerro is trying to do in The Islands in a short blog post. I will leave the big questions up to the academics who are no doubt salivating over the whole thing. What I do want to talk about, though, is the structure, and the way in which it creates a kind of fractured narrative about war, about national identity, and about the future.

Marketing books is hard. Marketing indie translations is even harder. So when And Other Stories call The Islands “a detective novel, a cyber-thriller, an inner-city road trip and a war memoir,” it sounds like they are trying to cover all their bases, to get as many people reading the novel as possible. As it turns out, they are actually quite close to the truth. The first section could be ripped right out of any cyperpunk novel of the late 80s/early 90s, with a computer hacker getting a mysterious summons to a skyscraper made exclusively out of one-way mirrors. It’s inventive, bizarre, philosophical, and confrontingly violent.

It is something of a surprise, then, when Chapter Two takes a huge turn, and becomes a detective novel, mixed with surreal scenes of a shady Argentinian public service. Genre hopping becomes commonplace throughout the novel, and Gamerro takes us from crime novel to war memoir, road trip to cyperpunk in almost self-contained chapters that all build up a picture of a war that, for many people, never really ended.

Clearly threaded throughout this, though, is the way in which Argentina, and Argentinians, responded to losing the war. It is what drives our protagonist—both physically and emotionally—to seek out the answers he has been asked to find. Several sections are written as flashbacks to the war itself, in which Felipe Félix himself was a conscript. These glimpses into the war are not pretty—much of it seems pointless, with the officers in particular more concerned with their own egos than questioning their own actions.

The Islands is too long for its own good—I got bored and stopped every few sections. It tends to ramble, often repeating thematic beats that have already been explored, and sometimes loses narrative focus in favour of drug trips and conversations on philosophy. I’m terrified by the afterword, in which Gamerro suggests this English edition has been cut down significantly from the original Spanish.

Taken on their own, though, each section in The Islands is a little masterpiece, exploring everything from love, lust, father/son relationships, computer science and wartime nationalism—but always through the lens of the Falklands War. One cannot help but wonder if this makes it the archetypal contemporary Argentinian novel.

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The Gathering (2007) – Anne ENRIGHT

The recent debate over the Booker Prize’s perceived shift away from the literary and towards the ‘readable’ overlooks a variety of important facts. The first, of course, is that one judge, in an off-hand comment, suggested that there is no point awarding a novel that no one will read—a comment that, taken at face value, seems to be eminently true.

The other important fact is that many of the recent winners have been big, complicated novels dealing with big, complicated ideas. Enright’s The Gathering is no exception.

The eponymous gathering is that of a large Irish Catholic family. Liam, the younger brother of our narrator Veronica, has died of an alcoholic overdose, and the family has come to mourn. As the family struggle to come to terms with this death, Veronica finds herself attempting to piece together just why Liam might have taken his own life.

It’s hard not to describe The Gathering without it sounding like a litany of Irish literature clichés: Catholicism, families, alcoholism, childhood sexual abuse and depression all get a good workout. But Enright takes those themes and turns them on their head with the inclusion of a rather interesting take on memory and narration. It’s also to Enright’s credit that, despite the horrific and depressing nature of this tale, I didn’t want to top myself by the end.

There are two themes at the heart of this novel: family, and memory. As Veronica tries desperately to understand how and why Liam’s life came to suicide, she begins to remember her childhood, growing up with her many brothers and sisters. She also tries to piece together how she became so unhappily married—she has been unable to sleep with her husband (both metaphorically and literally) since Liam died. All of a sudden, she cannot quite believe how her life came to be nothing more than a mother and wife, driving a fancy car, married to a man who seems to spend all his time in the office, away from his wife and two daughters.

In an even greater feat of memory, Veronica imagines/remembers her mother and her grandmother’s lives, too. The recurring theme in all three lives is the way in which women seem to been driven mad by the responsibilities placed on them by simply having a family. As though these tales are handed down from woman to woman, Veronica finds herself reliving the pains of her grandmother’s lost love, of her mother’s miscarriages. Each and every woman seems to find herself battered and bruised simply by having to adhere to the conventions required of the women of their time.

Veronica admits her own failings as a storyteller/narrator about halfway through the novel. She knows there is something that probably caused Liam’s unhappiness, but has been unwilling to remember it. Perhaps because she feels guilty, or perhaps not, but she has chosen to forget that Liam was sexually assaulted by an uncle when they were children. Though it is not spelt out, it is heavily implied that this incident led to Liam’s hedonistic life of drinking and debauchery. The implicit judgement—that sexual abuse is not a one-off case of assault—is horrific, and should give us all cause to think.

The two warring elements of this novel—the investigation of the twentieth-century Irish family, and the construction of a story from imperfect human memory—come together perfectly, highlighting Enright’s gifts as both storyteller and examiner of the human condition. For anyone sceptical of the Booker’s ability to find classics, try The Gathering.

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Mateship With Birds (2012) – Carrie TIFFANY

The inaugural Stella Prize was announced last week. Conveniently, because Mateship With Birds was longlisted for both the Stella and the Miles Franklin, I thought I should probably read it and see what all the fuss as all about. Looking through the archives of this place, it would appear that I have in fact read Carrie Tiffany’s first book, Everyday Rules for Scientific Living, but I have absolutely no recollection of it.

Harry lives next-door to Betty. Betty has two children who, in many ways, see Harry as their surrogate father. Underneath this arrangement, though, is the desire Harry has for Betty, and the desire Betty has for Harry. As time passes, the question of whether they will act on their feelings

The hilariously Australian pun in the title—for those across the seas, ‘bird’ is a very retro, slightly derogatory term for women—highlights the main theme of the novel: the relationship between men and women.

The most obvious, of course, is the relationship between Harry and Betty who, despite living next-door to each other for many years, and despite the fact that both seem to be attracted to the other, they never act on it in anything more than awkward social fumblings. The reasons for this are never explicitly stated, though Tiffany suggests that perhaps it is because of the historical context—Betty has moved to this town because her past as an unmarried woman with two children has proved to be problematic for her family in the past.

Because Harry feels he never had the chance to learn about women, Harry decides to educate Betty’s teenage son, Michael, in the ways of women. The two have already formed a close bond over bird watching, and in many ways, as the only adult male in proximity, Harry acts as a surrogate father to Michael. But like any man, particularly one who actually has little real-world experience with wooing and loving real women, Harry’s advice is tinged with his own past mistakes. Unable to draw on any experiences of his own, the advice given to Michael is littered with well-meaning but ultimately incorrect information. Who knows, perhaps this is Tiffany’s own little dig at the way men talk about sex to the next generation.

At the end of each scene/chapter/section, Tiffany gives us part of a poem about kookaburras, penned by Harry himself. Structurally, it’s really nice—the trials and the tribulations of the kookaburra family are contrasted with Betty’s family to good effect—but it still frustrated me. I have to confess, I’m not a huge fan of poetry in novels, so I found myself zoning out. I know, I know. I’m a terrible person.

It’s easy to fill the voids that Tiffany creates in Mateship With Birds, to fill in the gaps, both thematically and plot-wise, that stretch out between the glimpses of life afforded us on the pages. Questions of love obviously linger above everything that happens—Harry’s unspoken, unacted feelings towards Betty, for example—and in some ways, this is to the detriment of the novel. There’s a lot to be said for allowing the reader to read meaning into a text, but when there is so much blank space on your canvas, it begins to look more unfinished than purposefully unanswered.

I don’t usually say this, but I would have loved for Tiffany to go into more detail, broadening her scope. In just over 200 pages, we cover quite a lot of time, leaving one with the distinct impression of fleetingness that doesn’t quite satisfy. There is no doubt that Mateship With Birds is well written, but it lacks that killer punch that makes good writing great.

And I still think The Burial should have won.

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The Commandant (1975) – Jessica ANDERSON

Expectations are a funny thing. If a book is marked as a ‘classic’—particularly as a forgotten classic that needs re-evaluating—a reader can be forgiven for expecting something quite special. This is particularly relevant considering my past encounters with Text Classics—forgotten Australian novels that Michael Heyward thinks deserve a wider audience. For the most part, I have enjoyed reading old Australian novels. So when I read the blurb for The Commandant, I was expecting a novel full of fireworks and fights, of complex moral ambiguity.

The first scene is a promising opening. On a ship from Sydney bound for Moreton Bay, several women are discussing their future lives. Of particular interest to us is Francis, whose sister, Letty, is married to the commandant of Moreton Bay: Patrick Logan. Mr Logan has recently come under fire in Sydney for his perceived bending of the rules when it comes to the punishment of the convicts for whom he is responsible.

But Letty is friends with a journalist who has made claims about Logan; claims Logan has refuted by filing suit against said journalist for defamation. Letty, being the naïve teenager she is, has spent so much time with the journalist’s family, she has been caught up in his truth, and believes Patrick Logan to be a monster, a throw-back to a time that has passed, and needs to be forgotten. I think it’s safe to say that, were she alive today, she would be what some people might disparagingly refer to as a latte-sipping, inner-city, bleeding heart lefty. So, of course, the most exciting thing the novel can offer is the confrontation between a man who believes what he does is right, and a woman who believes what he does is a crime against humanity.

This clash between Frances and Patrick never eventuates quite like I imagined it would, though again, perhaps my expectations were getting in the way of reality. Despite Francis’ willingness to shout loudly her opinions on the ship journey to Moreton Bay, as soon as she meets the man in question, she finds herself barely able to talk. She is, of course, only 17 years old, and Patrick Logan is, if nothing else, a physically imposing man. For Francis to be struck so dumb by the encounter immediately sets up the dynamic of the relationship between the two characters in a way that one might not otherwise expect.

There can be no question that the whipping of convicts—particularly with a cat-o’-nine-tails one hundred times—can be anything other than a vile abuse of power and position. But Patrick Logan never seems to overstep the limits set in place by colonial law when it comes to punishing his charges for their wrongs. And he is certainly not a bad man—yes, he has a bit of a temper, and is not exactly a revolutionary when it comes to penal reform, but not everyone has to be. The promised fight between a lefty on her moral high horse and a traditional man willing to follow the law in order to meet out punishment for people never happens.

Instead, there is talk. A lot of talk. Which, in Anderson’s defence, is something she does very well. All the dialogue in the novel is perfectly pitched, particularly the idiosyncratic speech patterns of Frances’ sister, Letty, whose lisp

It all seems to come to a head about halfway through the novel, when the talking stops, and something actually happens. Frances, who has already crossed social mores, is sexually assaulted by Martin, a young man who works as a gardener for the Logan household. The next events are strange. Frances is blamed for the attack, because she led him along by talking out of turn. Then she pleads for him not to be punished, not with the whip. Of course, Logan assures her that only the appropriate punishment will be given. Of course, the ‘appropriate’ punishment is whipping. The chance to turn this into a journey about Frances having to deal with an actual crime committed against her, and how she deals with punishment, glitters hopefully, like a diamond in a boulder.

But this interesting side road comes to a halting stop when the section ends, plunging us into the final third of the novel, which opens several days after the second ends, and we finds ourselves plunged into the middle of the bush just outside Brisbane, where a search party are looking for Patrick Logan, who has gone walkabout. The momentum built up in the last section surrounding the sexual assault and the subsequent fallout is completely lost as we go into the bush with this group, and spend fifty pages looking for the body of a dead man. It’s an odd choice, and for me, not one that paid off. Again, though, maybe this was just because I was expecting more page time for the clash between Patrick Logan and Francis.

That is the central mystery of The Commandant: why would Patrick Logan, a man so ostensibly committed to the law he has been tasked to uphold, go by himself into the bush? Was it to find the convicts that had escaped the camp to live with the Aboriginal tribes? Was it to escape the gossip surrounding his impending trial? Did he not want to go to India with his regiment? There is never a satisfactory answer, but to be honest, that is not the problem. The problem is that I was never invested enough in any of the answers to particularly care what the answer was.

Does anyone really change by the end of the novel? Have any of these characters learned anything? Frances goes back to Sydney, having seen the punishment Logan (and by extension, the law) hands out, and doesn’t like it. Logan himself is dead. Letty is a widow, and has to move back to Sydney with her children. It all kind of fizzles out in a weirdly anti-climactic fashion.

Expectations are unavoidable. Why read anything if you don’t already have some (at least vague) idea about what you are getting yourself into? But sometimes expectations work against you. The Commandant is a passable historical novel, notable particularly for the fact that it is set in Brisbane, not Sydney. But I’m not sure it’s a classic that deserves to be read for generations to come.

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The Burial (2012) – Courtney COLLINS

What better way to celebrate Australia Day than by reviewing the promising debut novel from a young Australian writer? The Burial has been sitting on the shelves at work, sadly untouched, so I picked it up to see if I couldn’t recommend it to some people. I’m glad I did—it heralds the arrival of someone concerned not just with history, but looking at new ways of telling old stories.

A baby lies dead in the ground. This is the child of Jessie, a young woman about to be on the run for a crime she definitely committed. But this child has a story to tell. It is the story of her mother, the story of a young woman who has turned to a life of crime to escape the problems in her own life. This is the story of Jessie Hickman, bushranger.

First things first. The narration and the language of this novel are glorious. Narrated by the dead baby Jessie gives birth to in one of the first scenes of the novel (yes, this novel is narrated by a zombie baby), the cadence and colour of the narration give this novel a sense of style. Evoking the Gothic made so famous by Faulkner, McCarthy and Flanagan, Collins shows us the brutal magnificence of the Australian landscape. Perhaps it is the very fact that this child is so aware of its own surroundings—that is, the dirt in which it is buried—that there is such a deep connection with the landscape.

Collins populates her novel with intriguing characters, too, not least of which is Jessie herself, a character based on the real-life bushranger, Jessie Hickman. Her history is revealed slowly and surely, in parallel with the trials she currently faces. She has been in gaol for stealing horses, a crime that, in frontier Australia, comes with several years of quality time in lock-up. Once she is out, though, her troubles really begin. Though she has been freed from gaol, she has not been freed from a life of oppression—she must be released into the custody of man, someone who can look after her and make sure she will not get up to any trouble again. She is released into the care of Fitz, a grazier who needs a wife.

Fitz is an easy character to dislike. He has very few redeeming features. He abuses Jessie, both mentally and physically, forcing her to remain in the house while he does much of the physical labour. Soon, though, he sees the value in her ability to steal horses, and forces her to do it for him, fully aware that he will never be convicted of the crime. Their relationship comes to a sticky end as she goes into labour, when she kills him in a quite brutal fashion with an axe. It is his child she gives birth to in the opening sequence, a child she hopes against all hopes is not actually fathered by Fitz.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Jessie should find physical relief in the form of Jack Brown, a young half-Aboriginal man who also works for Fitz. He has his own subplots, including what is perhaps the least interesting part of the novel, detailing his visits to a brothel and subsequent relationship with a Chinese prostitute. Though this character does become important at the climax of the novel, I wonder if there was a way to rearrange it so we didn’t have to go through the early parts.

Jack Brown’s story runs in parallel to Jessie’s, and it follows his attempts to find Jessie—her murder of Fitz has seen a bounty placed on her head, and now everyone is looking for her. He teams up with a new local policeman—Sergeant Barlow is, however, addicted to cocaine, and in no state to go on a race through the bush—to track her down and save her. This is his motive: he loves her and he wants to save her. A noble sentiment, if ever there was one, but one based on a wildly inaccurate assumption—that Jessie needs saving by anyone.

Collins goes out of her way to explore the plight of women in this pioneering society. Away from the social movements of the 1920s in the inner-cities, women are still treated as second-class citizens in the valley where Jessie roams. The two main female characters—Jessie, as well as the old woman who give she shelter when she runs away—are both in abusive relationships. The entire point of the novel, though, is that Jessie does not need rescuing. She can make her own way in this dangerous world so unfriendly to independent women—what she really needs is a world where women are allowed to be what they want to be.

Jessie seems happiest when she stumbles upon a band of boy thieves, who are also trying to steal horses and resell them. Though initially cautious of one another, she forms a bond with the merry band, and together, they pull off an audacious plan that, surprisingly, almost works perfectly. Sadly, it does force her to once again run away from her problems, as Collins builds to a climax that sees the perhaps inevitable showdown between law and criminal that must be faced by all bushranger novels. Fortunately, Jessie’s stand does not go the same way as Ned Kelly’s at Glenrowan. She again manages to escape, finding herself on the run once again.

The Burial is not a long book, but it is eminently engaging, relying on a narrative trick that could so easily be gimmicky, but never is. Collins creates a beautiful narrative in both voice and structure, heralding the arrival of a new Australian talent that has a bright future. A strong contender, I should think, for this year’s crop of awards.

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