THE more contemporary Tasmanian literature you read, the clearer it becomes that Australia’s most geographically removed state has become the repository of our collective historical imagination. From Richard Flanagan’s colonial-era Wanting to Christopher Koch’s elegiac 19th-century finale Lost Voices, Tassie is the place to go if you want a sense of who we are as a country, the grit and the grotesquerie of our coming into being. Tasmania is, by virtue of its size and its severance from the mainland, a kind of sociopolitical concentrate: the hard-boiled version of elements that made us who we are.
Most remarkable is the continuity between literary generations. Koch, the elder statesman, and Flanagan, the current leader (though the quiet achiever Amanda Lohrey deserves equal rank) have handed down their story-making to the young. Unlike those fledgling writers in, say, Sydney or Melbourne, who mostly see virtue in making an enemy of their nation’s past and all who would keep them mired in its flaws, Tasmania’s new blood have instead injected their founding circumstances with a vigour and intelligence drawn from the best of the wider creative world.
Take Lenny Bartulin, whose recent novel Infamy managed to recast the early years of Van Diemen’s Land in terms as close to Deadwood, HBO’s masterpiece of long-form television, as to Marcus Clarke’s transportation-era melodrama For the Term of his Natural Life. Or take the dark fictional transports of Rohan Wilson, whose first novel The Roving Party, winner of The Australian- Vogel Literary Award in 2010, was described (in wholly admiring terms) by Tim Winton as “Blood Meridian with wombats’’.
To Name Those Lost also shows fealty to the gothic intensity of Cormac McCarthy. But unlike Wilson’s debut — which, though powerful in terms of its prose and utterly original in its use of historical materials, at times threatened to shade into McCarthyesque pastiche — this new work soon shakes its coat of earlier influence. Wilson writes here with an economy and energy that are his alone. This new novel may be a sequel of sorts to The Roving Party, that tale of racial annihilation and metaphysical disquietude based on the Tasmanian Black Wars of the early 19th century, yet this time the story has a less flamboyant manner, a keener edge.
The time is 1874. Tasmania is now a postfrontier society, a place of laws and rising wealth for the governing class. The wider population has not shared in the gains, however. Its men and women, many of whom are former convicts, keep one foot firmly planted in the anarchic past. When the government of the day imposes a levy on those living near the Deloraine-Launceston railway line after the collapse of the company that built it, the recalcitrant population goes out in riot. The state replies with a large and well-armed police force.
It is against this backdrop of public pandemonium that Wilson’s cat-and-mouse narrative plays out.
Thomas Toosey is a grey-haired journeyman whom readers first met as a boy member of John Batman’s exterminatory band in The Roving Party. He has since spent 10 years in Port Arthur penitentiary, having been found guilty of an unspeakable crime. When we first meet him in these pages, he has stolen 200 in banknotes from an erstwhile prison mate, Dublin-born Fitheal Flynn.
Wilson takes these brute facts and gradually complicates them. We learn that Toosey has a son whose mother died suddenly: the money is intended for him. Flynn, meanwhile, turns out to be a man of proud and intransigent bent, capable of great violence. He travels to Launceston in search of the thief, accompanied by a mysterious hooded figure, who when questioned claims to be an executioner, but turns out to be not what people think.
Wilson remains a gifted translator of historical detail into fictional terms. The ripe idiomatic language of the day is reproduced in such a way as to seem real without being anachronistic. Likewise, the sensory world he summons up, boozy and pungent, makes the present feel boringly sanitised. The brutality that punctuated The Roving Party is less in evidence here. When it arrives, however, there is a shocking verisi- militude to Wilson’s descriptions. Already, the novel suggests, violence in Tasmania has become more abstract, diffuse. It increasingly belongs to owners of capital and politicians, and it is dealt out by uniformed men.
This is not to say that the author is on the side of the mob rioting against the forces of law and order; rather, he concentrates on those individuals who evince a rectitude or self-sufficiency radically at odds with the frenzied mass. ‘‘History,’’ as Toosey says, ‘‘is the art by which we live our lives.’’
Aside from making for a tale that readers will not be able to wrench their eyes away from, this micro-macro approach points to another, more subtle link between Wilson and McCarthy. The American author has spent the latter part of his career rewriting the history of the US frontier via such antiheroes: creating new myths of ‘‘the West’’ out of a demolition of the old.
To Name Those Lost suggests Wilson has embarked on a similarly ambitious project for his home state. Like so many Tasmanian narratives, it is a more robust iteration of our larger national story.
Rohan Wilson by the Esk River in Launceston