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.