On a manhunt into colony’s dark heart
By Lenny Bartulin Allen & Unwin, 352pp, $29.99
BORN and educated in Hobart, Lenny Bartulin is the author of a series of three crime novels, A Deadly Business (2008), The Black Russian (2010) and De Luxe (2011).
In his new novel, Infamy, crime is still central to the plot but Bartulin ventures back in time to tap Tasmania’s richest fictional lode: the early colonial era of convicts, pastoral expansion at the expense of the Aborigines, bloodshed, buggery and bushrangers.
There’s the iron rule of the evangelical Lieutenant Governor George Arthur, the establishment of struggling small towns and rural properties that vainly sought to mimic those remembered by their settlers from Europe.
Arthur has a key role in the novel, as does the messianic bushranger Brown George Coyne, whose offer of 20 gallons of rum for Arthur’s arrest borrows from the vaunt of the ‘‘ gentleman’’ bushranger Matthew Brady (hanged in Hobart in 1826).
Coyne lives with his desperadoes in a fastness in the mountains of southern Tasmania. There are notable similarities with Christopher Koch’s Lost Voices (2012), in which the cultivated outlaw Lucas Wilson holes up in Nowhere Valley.
Coyne’s luck has been to stumble on ‘‘ an Eden as was hidden beyond the cave in the mountain’’. There, also, he ‘‘ found the nugget, as though it was fate, washing in the shallow river’’. Because of its river of gold, Coyne names the place not Nowhere but Alluvium.
Both Bartulin and Koch trace the collapse from within of these criminal utopias. Before then, Bartulin sets in motion a hectic narrative, as fast-paced and given to cliff-hanging as a serial at long-ago Saturday matinees.
In the prologue to Infamy, William Burr is wounded while hunting mahogany pirates in British Honduras in Central America. Recuperating, he receives a letter from John McQuillan, his former employer and now chief magistrate of Hobart Town. This invites him to come and earn a reward ‘‘ from our dear old friend Lieutenant Governor Arthur (Colonel Holier Than Thou)’’ for capturing Coyne.
By the summer of 1830, Coyne is in Van Diemen’s Land.
Bartulin briskly assembles his cast: the venal and philandering police magistrate Stephen Vaughan and his contemptuous wife, Ellen; the mysterious Charles Trentham, ‘‘ a ship trader’’ and purported friend of the Chief Secretary in London; Arthur’s man Montagu and Trentham’s man Perkins, frequenters of the taverns of the town; the mainland Aborigine Robert Ringa (‘‘they wanted him to track down men for hanging’’), Coyne’s spy in Government House, Tilly Holt.
Burr is soon filled in on this netherpart of the world by McQuillan: ‘‘ You’ve not seen hell, lad, until you’ve seen Macquarie Harbour.’’ This was the worst of the four places of incarceration and torment in Marcus Clarke’s great seminal novel of the convict system, For the Term of His Natural Life (1874).
More cheekily, not least in the brio with which he marshals people and events into bloody collision, Bartulin may have the Vandemonian historical fantasias of Bryce Courtenay in view.
Burr has failed to prevent the kidnap of Ellen Vaughan but gallantly sets out to the rescue. Meanwhile Coyne, whose ‘‘ dreams are full of signs and portents’’, awaits his destiny seated on a chair ‘‘ like a throne wrought of twisted tree roots, thick as your thighs’’. His plan is to raise the native tribes in rebellion (he has married the daughter of the chief of one of them), to suborn the local magistrates, overthrow Arthur and use his own gold to rule the colony, not forgetting that he ‘‘ had to eat the livers and the hearts, drink the hot blood’’ of his numerous enemies.
Rightly, many fear him. For the Aborigine Tillartenninna, ‘‘ the world had become small, as it would have been in the beginning, and the devils of the night had come to the day’’. Boldly, Bartulin has embraced the extravagant mode of melodrama that has produced some of our finest and strangest literature, from Marcus Clarke to Manning Clark, Christina Stead and Thomas Keneally, among many.
Bartulin shares their daring and confidence in all that the reimagining of the Australian past can yield for fiction. His novel nearly overextends itself, but that is the way of melodrama. Often, though, his best effects are achieved through a plain style, as when — near the end of the novel — Coyne ‘‘ walked on, down, down, towards Hobart Town and destiny’’.
Bartulin has written a truly exciting book, a nightmare tale of pursuit glimpsed in vivid fragments. He has revealed a capacious talent, assured even as it seems reckless. That haunting, lost place — Van Diemen’s Land — maintains its invigorating power for writers.