When Rohan Wilson won the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award last year for The Roving Party, it heralded a change in the way the award functioned. No longer would we have to wait months between announcement and publication – it was available to buy the very next day in all good bookstores. Of course, it has taken me more than a year to get around to reading it, but there you go. I’ve had other things to do.
John Batman has been charged with rounding up rebel tribes of Aboriginals in Van Diemen’s Land. Given a small band of convicts, along with two black trackers – and a man named Black Bill, an Aboriginal man born and raised as a white man. As they make their way around the small island, there is one man they all want to find – Manalargena, a powerful tribal leader who has a personal connection to Black Bill.
There is a deeply violent streak at the core of this novel. It is not far from the beginning that we are given a glimpse into the kind of people we are following – convicts desperate to do anything to escape their conditions have accepted a job for which they are deeply unsuitable. None of them seem to like each other, and this bubbles over when one young man makes the mistake of insulting the youngest member of the team – a teenage boy, barely able to shave. The boy responds by brutally beating him. When this doesn’t deter the man from further taunts, the boy attacks again. These two incidents give us an insight in to the kind of people tasked with tracking down and killing Aboriginal tribes – they are hardly pleasant.
At the same time, though, Wilson goes out of his way to highlight the stark beauty of the Tasmanian wilderness. We get gorgeous descriptions of the bush in all seasons – from the intense (well, for Tasmania) heat of summer, to the brutal cold of an unforgiving Tasmanian winter. It seems perhaps ironic to have this beautiful landscape as the backdrop for some heinous abuses of both morality and human rights, but it seems somehow grimly fitting. I like that characters refer to Indigenous Tasmanians as Vandemonians – it took me far too long to realise this was a corruption of Van Diemen’s Land. It’s a nice touch.
Wilson’s style is worth mentioning, too. Though I am far from expert in this field, there is an evocation of McCarthy in it – whether this is just because they seem to share an intense dislike of commas and quotation marks, or because of the similarly violent concerns, I’m not sure. I’m not alone in thinking this (don’t click on that link if you haven’t read the novel – there are giant spoilers), and it’s nice to see some stylistic experimentation in Australian fiction – there’s such rich opportunities in the Australian tradition for a kind of “Australian Gothic” in response to “Southern Gothic” I’m surprised it’s not taken up more often.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Black Bill is the most interesting. There is a long line of Aboriginal characters raised as white folk in Australian literature, and what is fascinating about Wilson’s character is his clear decision to reject his black identity. He does not struggle with who he is, he knows. For him, there is no question about his cultural identity – he is a white man, despite the colour of his skin. Of course, this causes a wide range of problems when he comes up against people who are less sure about him, whose world consists of good white people and bad black people. What I like even more is that we are never allowed in to his inner thoughts – Wilson denies us the opportunity to explore whether or not this surety is a façade, or whether he truly thinks everyone around him is an idiot for not playing along. This isn’t some take on the inscrutable Other, I should point out – many main characters are denied internal monologues.
I’m genuinely surprised The Roving Party didn’t make it to this year’s Miles Franklin longlist – I thought it was a shoe-in. It takes historical fiction in Australia – so often tired and worn out from overuse by mediocre authors – and gives it a swift kick up the arse. It is brutal, unforgiving and tiring, but it is an excellent novel. I’m excited to see where Rohan Wilson goes next.