Audacious evocation of a Lady Bushranger
THE Burial was one of four historical novels shortlisted for the 2009 The Australian / Vogel Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, all of them drawn from the creeks rather than the headwaters of Australia’s past.
The judges’ report described Courtney Collins’s novel as a ‘‘ dark, swooning upgrade of the Australian gothic genre’’ and the first chapter strikes an authentically gothic note as the narrator addresses us from beyond the grave: Morning of my birth, my mother buried me in a hole that was two feet deep . . . In that first light of morning my body contorted and I saw my own fingers reaching up to her, desperate things.
She held them and I felt them still and I felt them collapse. And then she said, Shhh, shhh, my darling. And then she slit my throat.
I should not have seen the sky turn pink or the day seep in. I should not have seen my mother’s pale arms sweep out and heap wet earth upon me or the white birds fan out over her head.
But I did. By Courtney Collins Allen & Unwin, 296pp, $27
It’s an audacious beginning that, among other things, asserts the novelist’s licence to invent a world and declare its truth. You might quibble with that mannered opening phrase, and the clumsy repetition of ‘‘ And then’’ but it’s hard not to admire the way Collins stakes her artistic claim.
After burying her child, Jessie flees on horseback. Much of what follows is told in flashback: after serving a jail sentence for horse rustling, Jessie is released into the care of Fitzgerald ‘‘ Fitz’’ Henry, a violent horse rustler and cattle duffer, who wants a wife as well as an accomplice. In time Jessie and Fitz’s Aboriginal stockman, Jack Brown, become lovers. The second half of the novel recounts Jessie’s adventures as a bushranger, culminating in her arrest by a benevolent but opiumaddled country policeman who turns out to have known her during her circus days.
Parts of the story — including the circus episode — have their roots in the documented history of Jessie Hickman, known as the Lady Bushranger of Wollemi. But colourful source material can be a curse as well as a blessing and Collins struggles to find the language to transform hers into fiction. At times our undead infant narrator waxes doggedly poetic: They regarded each other and she could see the beauty of his form, as elegant as nature and anything she had ever seen, mountain, river, rampart or tree. And as the boy and the dog stood visibly disbelieving at what they were seeing — a woman — she wondered as she approached if beauty was just the thing itself or made more beautiful from the space around it.
A few pages later we are in the script of a bad Tarantino movie: F . . k, he said to himself and then he yelled to Barlow, They’ve put a f . . king bounty on her head It’s not legal, said Barlow. It doesn’t f . . king matter. They’ve named the prize. It’s like unleashing dogs on her.
Let’s keep our cool, said Barlow.
Getting the voice (or, rather, voices) right is perhaps the hardest challenge for any novelist, and the stakes are especially high with historical fiction. There is a world of choice between the ornate ventriloquism of Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang and the muscular lyricism of, say, Robert Drewe’s Our Sunshine (another novel about Ned Kelly).
Authenticity in a historical novel is a slippery thing. A reader’s trust is hard to earn and easy to lose with a careless phrase or a false line of dialogue. There are some fine descriptive moments in The Burial — I loved the image of Jack Brown emerging from the river on horseback with ‘‘ a line beneath his knees, a watermark, where the river had washed his trousers part clean’’ — but such moments are often squandered by lifeless dialogue and clumsy exposition. As a result, the characters — in particular Jessie and Jack — never quite come alive.
There is a powerful vision behind this debut novel, and a strong story, let down by a lack of craft and editorial rigour. But Collins is a writer to watch.