Au­da­cious evo­ca­tion of a Lady Bushranger

The Burial

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Tom Gilling Tom Gilling

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.

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