Four novels explore history

The Devil's Eye; Deception; Into White Silence; The Sinkings

See review for publishing details. Review by Jennifer Moran
In his 1969 essay, Notes on an Unfinished Novel, the writer John Fowles proposed that Alain Robbe-Grillet’s polemical essay "Pour un nouveau roman" (1963) was “indispensable reading” for writers, “even where it produces no more than total disagreement”. Fowles himself disagreed with Robbe-Grillet’s “key question: Why bother to write in a form whose great masters cannot be surpassed?

“The fallacy of one of his conclusions, - that we must discover a new form to write in if the novel is to survive – is obvious,” Fowles wrote. “It reduces the purpose of the novel to the discovery of new forms, whereas its other purposes – to entertain, to satirize, to describe new sensibilities, to record life, to improve life, and so on – are clearly just as viable and important.”

Nevertheless, the “new” implied in the novel continues to taunt us; and form and its constraints preoccupies us perennially – currently, the form of the “historical” novel, in particular.

In the skirmishes between fashion and theory, or the assault on fashionable theory - avant-garde thrust or traditionalist parry - it might seem that all the arguments we are having are about things that might long ago have been settled.

Writers of fiction using the past have always grappled with the implicit logistics – the relationship of fictional characters to historical figures or events, scarcity or abundance of historical detail - as well as the more ephemeral authenticity of description or voice.

What might be different now is the increasingly shrill demand for writers of novels to act “responsibly”, to make their methodology more apparent, to satisfy some scientific urge in the reader to know just where the fact is wedged in the fiction.

Kate Grenville might have felt herself under recent fire but there is a platoon of fiction writers well armed behind her. This batch of novels, all dealing with the past, and with truthfulness, and what is knowable, assert the right of fiction to explore beyond the stringency of ascertainable fact.

In three, a modern protagonist, intrigued by a mystery from the past, sets out to uncover what has been hidden or lost. Each of these three explicitly grapples with the contemporary concerns about what constitutes history or story and what the living owe the dead (and their readers). In Ian Townsend’s The Devil’s Eye (Fourth Estate, 373pp, $27.99), there is no mediating modern guide but Townsend has, at public appearances to talk about this book, elaborated on which characters he borrowed from history, which he manipulated for the sake of his story and which he simply invented.

Is it odd that a reclamation of imagination is so deeply rooted in fact? With an encouraging sweep of subjects from our grandparents’ to our great-great-grandparents’ eras, the vitality of the historical form is made evident: the Queensland pearling fleet, settler-Aboriginal encounters and the tragedy of the 1899 cyclone in The Devil’s Eye; Antarctic exploration in Into White Silence (By Anthony Eaton, Woolshed Press, 393pp, $23.95); a colonial murder and prejudice in south-western Australia in The Sinkings (By Amanda Curtin, UWA Press, 381pp, $24.95); and the aftermath, in Australia and France, of conflict and the deportation of Paris Communards to New Caledonia in Deception (By Michael Meehan, Allen & Unwin, 284pp, $32.95).

Michael Meehen’s narrator, Nick Lethbridge, an Australian lawyer studying in England in 1968, uses his summer holiday to go to France to pursue a sad, mysterious event in his family’s history. His grandmother, Agnes, had been left behind to wait for her father at Mt Deception one terrible, stormy day as her mother and three sisters fled the farm in South Australia and her parents’ wounded compatriot, the Frenchman Sebastien Rouvel, who had been a long-staying and little-welcome guest, made off on Agatha’s horse. She never saw her mother and sisters again. Rouvel perished in the unforgiving heat.

Like the characters in his award-winning novel The Salt of Broken Tears, the family in Deception is buffeted by weather and worn by landscape, as well as worrying at the secrets and savageries, the appearances and disappearances that shape their lives. Meehen repeats parts of stories, and phrases, so that they build like a litany of loss. The connections between times, between people, eddy like a rising willy-willy. In the shadows and inconsistencies of Agnes’s stories, Lethbridge begins to wonder whether it is “the mystery that is concrete, the explanations that are abstract”. Nevertheless, he takes with him to Paris a letter sent by Agnes to her mother and sisters in France that was returned unopened and he has the papers left behind by Rouvel – extraordinary, fevered writing that Lethbridge needs help translating and decoding.

In France, the turmoil of the Paris streets echoes the stories of the Paris Commune that Lethbridge studies at the Bibliotheque Nationale. He meets the clochard Lucien who is, underneath his putrid clothing and matted hair, a scholar, if not a gentleman, and a useful source of information about the family’s involvement in the terrible events of 1871. The Rouvel biographer and descendant Julia Dussol seduces Lethbridge with her studious disarray and with the idea that they will help each other. She will point him in the direction of his family’s stories – the Franco-Prussian war, the Paris Commune, narrow escapes and bloodshed and deportations to New Caledonia - and he will give her Rouvel’s writings to add into her forthcoming book.

But the bitter divisions and cruel fighting of the 19th Century are simmering still and when Lethbridge finds his three great-aunts, his loyalties and his motivations become ravelled. He thinks about two kinds of history. “A kind that invaded and uncovered, that asserted its rights against all forms of restraint. And another kind that conspired more gently with what had been… a gentler form of knowing that moved in Good Samaritan union with the past. Binding its wounds. Covering its nakedness.”

Lucien believes that the words of Rouvel and, by implication, history, come to mean what we need them to mean, that we interpret them in the way we need to interpret them. For Tante Collette, guarding a long silence and a complicated past, facts are not enough to make a history: “Not just what happened, but the dreams. The illusions…”

Dreams and illusions haunt the narrator of Into White Silence, a writer called, like the book’s author, Anthony Eaton. Eaton, the narrator, has been to Antarctica on an arts fellowship (as has Eaton the author). There, hidden in the library, he found the small, leather-bound journal of Lieutenant William Downes in which is recounted the secret voyage to Antarctica of the Raven and her crew, in 1921 and 1922.

The dreams – increasingly, nightmares from which he wakes with a sense of dread - follow the illusion: Eaton, consumed by anxiety about what he is going to write, has stolen the journal and believes he can present it as his own fiction. Other people who might have seen the journal are conveniently dead. The expedition aboard the Raven, as the journal elaborates, was always shrouded in secrecy.

The author as trickster or author as inventor – Eaton deliberately confounds, asking the reader to believe him unreliable but forced into honesty. His sly conceit gives him the opportunity to run journal extracts to drive the narrative forward while his narrator fills in with family research, descriptions of his own voyage to Antarctica and comments on a writer’s relationship to material and history, integrity and truth, and how to tackle a story that might already exist and which might not be one’s story to tell.

If there is a fault with this structure, it is in the somewhat clumsy inclusion of the narrator’s feelings about the journal entries as the story of adventure, obsession, madness, cruelty, suffering and despair unfolds. The narrator’s emotional response deadens the reader’s and the book might better have been served by a little tweaking of journal entries to capture readers.

Random House has called this a young adult book, publishing it under the Woolshed Press imprint, but it is essentially a crossover book, probably too narrowly labelled because of Eaton’s previous nine books for teenagers and younger readers.

There are no ice-breakers in The Devil’s Eye but there are schooners, luggers and cutters - more than a hundred boats near Bathurst Bay. It is 1899 and the pearling fleets are scouring the seabed for pearl shell for the empire’s buttons and decorative inlay, jewellery and beads, and for the occasional prize of a perfect pearl. Divers don their heavy suits and brave the depths, rogue crocodiles and the bends for the harvest.

The most dangerous cyclone in Australia’s history, dubbed Mahina by the meteorologist Clement Wragge who was, at the time, in Brisbane, is heading their way. Inland, a small troop composed of the Queensland Native Mounted Police under the command of Constable Jack Kenny, some Aboriginal trackers and the Northern Protector of Aboriginals Dr Walter Roth are riding out to find evidence or a body. A man has turned up wounded in Cooktown – he appears to have been speared though he will not tell the policeman what happened - and it is believed another man that had been with him might be dead. Kenny thinks they might be pearlers or pearl merchants, run foul of the local clans.

On Thursday Island the Government Resident John Douglas is pining for his one daughter Hope, who has fled, or been banished, to Cooktown, and is not happy that his second daughter, Maggie Porter, is taking her baby Alice to join her husband’s pearling schooner in Bathurst Bay.

The historical record shows that during cyclone Mahina, on March 4 and 5, 1899 more than 70 boats were sunk or wrecked or driven ashore in the bay. More than 300 lives were lost and probably another 100 Aboriginal people living in the area were also killed.

Most of the pearlers were Malayans, Japanese, Islanders, Aboriginals, Javanese, Macassans and Singaporeans.

Townsend, who has worked as a journalist for many years, mined history for his successful first book, Affection, a novel set amidst the outbreak of bubonic plague in Townsville in 1900.

In The Devil’s Eye he focuses on one week, building the tension towards the coming storm. His major characters are constructions around the known facts and around historical figures with some significant authorly licence asserted. John Douglas, Walter Roth, Jack Kenny and the Porters are all historical figures documented to a greater or lesser degree. Townsend has altered nationality, family relationships, alliances and the known fate of several of these people. For example, though John Douglas was a very significant settler and has been written about in considerable detail, and Maggie Porter really existed too, they were not father and daughter. This type of manipulation raises an interesting question about what constitutes a “greater truth” in fiction.

Of all these books, Townsend’s is the most provocative in terms of the current debate. It neither explains to the reader nor apologises for historical inaccuracy or invention. In spite of that, it’s a compelling yarn and does a good job of raising interesting issues to do with politics and nationhood and the things that societies value, fulfilling not a few of Fowles’s criteria.

Amanda Curtin, in her acknowledgments in The Sinkings, writes that she has “invented the motivations and personalities of actual people, and [has] freely interpreted events”. This is her debut novel, though her short fiction has been well regarded and widely published. She is careful to delineate just what material she drew from sources and which sources those were, and what she invented, and this seems somehow reassuring.

There is something transporting too, in the quality of her invention - the world of Little Jock, the Irish child who grows up in Scotland after the Irish Famine and, following a series of thefts, is sentenced to hard labour in Australia. In this invention, Curtin disarms the reader in large part because of the beauty of the writing. It is quite a wrench to be continuously thrust back into the contemporary world where Curtin’s character Willa is researching Little Jock and his horrific murder while she tries to find a way past the agonising rift from her own child.

Willa is a somewhat less sympathetic character in her debilitating grief – in books, as in real life, it is sometimes hard to be patient with a character wallowing toward healing. Willa has had to face extraordinarily difficult choices in the care of Imogen and Imogen has come to see those choices as brutal and unforgivable. It is the echo of Imogen that Willa notes in the story of Little Jock, though his story lies fallow for a decade before she begins to delve seriously.

When Little Jock (also known as John King or Peter Lennie and a number of other names) was alive, in the 19th Century, the labels Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia and intersexed did not exist. “Freaks of nature” were paraded at fairs. In Willa’s exploration of ways of being and how we define ourselves and choose our labels, we are forced to a comparison with our own time that is hardly reassuring.

It is not just Imogen’s, and Little Jock’s difference that Willa feels compelled to explore but what makes family and identity, and the fragile underpinnings of both.

Willa’s experience with Imogen has made her careful with Little Jock. She sees a Canaletto painting in Scotland – it is a caprice landscape and Willa muses that the life of Little Jock she is “trying to paint from archival remains and speculations was not unlike Canaletto’s little caprice… A mixture of real and imaginary details. It seemed … that this was the essence of memory, perhaps even of history itself. And that there was nothing capricious about it.”

© Jennifer Moran

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