JOHN Marsden and Shaun Tan’s notable 1998 picture book The Rabbits was described as “an allegory of colonisation” and attacked as “politically correct propaganda”. The rabbits (the British colonisers) were the invaders and the numbats (the Aborigines) the invaded. It’s an angry book. The Rabbits will receive its debut as an opera at next year’s Perth Festival.
Marsden’s most famous foray into the means and effects of invasion was the award-winning young adult series that started in 1993 with Tomorrow When the War Began and ran to seven books. While devoured by the target audience as nail-biting action-adventure stories, pitting a group of teenagers against an unnamed enemy, the political undertones and implications made some adult readers, including me, uneasy. The invaders were clearly “of Asian appearance”. Marsden focused on the courage and resilience of teenagers, saying: “the idea of people overcoming adversity by using their own resources was strongly imprinted in me [by books he’d read when young], because those guys had nothing except their own strength and their own mind power. There’s something noble about that.”
So to South of Darkness, Marsden’s first novel for adults. In this detailed, carefully plotted and researched historical novel about the transportation of convicts and early European settlement in Australia, there is little sense of invasion or of the violence often ascribed to our post-1788 history. It is far from Marsden’s previous character, voice and action-driven tales. Told in an expansive 18th and 19th-century style and tone, it is reminiscent of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and, of course, Dickens.
Barnaby Fletch begins his tale at about age 30: “Having been asked by the Revd Mr Johnson to jot down a few notes about my upbringing and the manner of my arrival in the colony ...” My fellow convicts, not to mention the soldiers, marines, emancipates and free men, were and still are for the most part uninterested in what they see as [this land’s] strangeness and monotony. When I first arrived I regarded it with much the same distaste. Yet gradually I have fallen under its spell.
We then meet Barnaby at age 12 or so. With no idea who his parents are, he scrapes by, scrounging food, sleeping rough and doing odd jobs. Marsden details the boy’s life: surviving on the streets, an unexpected excursion to the bizarre wonders of the Tower of London, the hangings, fairs, various crimes, the hold on many of Madame Geneva (gin) and even a horrific example of child abuse that almost entraps the innocent youngster.
Barnaby often sleeps hidden in a church, not realising that the kindly Revd Mr Haddock, as opposed to the aptly named Revd Mr Grimwade, is aware of his presence and leaves him scraps of food. This encounter leads to one of two life-changing coincidences close to the end of the book, perhaps in keeping with the literary conventions of the times. Barnaby reflects: “Every day my life on the streets showed human nature at its best and worst.”
His insights into the arbitrariness of existence and the effects of changing legal and social expectations form recurring themes. Hearing Aborigines called barbaric, Barnaby observes: “It is hard to conceive of customs more barbaric South of Darkness By John Marsden Macmillan Australia, 375pp, $39.99 (HB) than the procedures ... for the punishment of criminals ... [or] anything more barbaric than the conditions in Newgate and on the Hulks.”
Having heard New South Wales described as “Paradise”, Barnaby contrives to have himself sentenced to seven years transportation in the 1790s. After a grim spell in Newgate, he is dispatched to the Admiral Barrington. The middle section documents the long, arduous voyage to Australia where, while there were cruel and corrupt sailors and members of the supervising New South Wales Corps, and some predatory and unsavoury behaviour among the lags, the captain and surgeon in this instance were en- lightened and just: “the constant insistence by Surgeon Gossam on hygiene and cleanliness, the daily scrubbings, the frequent baths and regular meals ... slowly brought about a noticeable improvement in the health of most men aboard”.
Barnaby finds a protector in Carmichael Lance, who teaches him to read using the only available book, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Barnaby concludes that “it is thanks to these two unorthodox teachers, Mr Bunyan and Carmichael, that I became a great lover of literature and language, and hold the position I have today — and have been emboldened to write this simple account of my own beginnings.”
The final section recounts Barnaby’s experiences after arriving at Port Jackson. The received wisdom of the unalloyed horrors of transportation and of settlement experiences are challenged. Were some accounts exaggerated for effect and sympathy? Undoubtedly it was a tough existence. Which trees yield the best timber? Which crops to sow and where? What to eat? Barnaby’s first task is carrying water to axemen and builders.
When he offers water and steals food for Johnny, an escaped convict, the pair must flee to avoid punishment. After desperately trying to survive in the bush, they live for some time with an Aboriginal tribe. Barnaby notes with fascination the affinity of the “Indians” with the land: their knowledge, hunting and survival skills, their rituals but also their frequently confronting social mores. The story gathers pace as the two fugitives decide to return to the colony and find an unlikely, but dramatic, means to salvation. Here Barnaby hints at a sequel “telling of subsequent stages of my life, and indeed of Johnny’s further adventures”. Meeting Johnny is the other big coincidence in Barnaby’s life.
Early in the story, while hidden in “his” church, Barnaby listens to a sermon from Revd Mr Haddock based on the biblical tale of Job. This informs Barnaby’s thinking and actions and is used as a guiding and unifying thread throughout the book. Job, “a man of total integrity”, is sorely tried by God at the behest of Satan. He suffers terribly, losing everything but regaining much because of his steadfastness and faith. Marsden’s approach here is questioning and complex, offering a powerful subtext, not least to Barnaby’s understanding of this new land where “instead of feeling exhilarated by being permitted to stand erect in that immensity, many cowered under it”.
Barnaby struggles with his desire for order, certainty, faith and integrity; with his belief that religion should offer succour, not fear, and his increasing certainty that: “We are subject more to capricious impulses and behaviour than we are to immutable universal laws.”
There’s a deeper, gentler nobility in how Barnaby faces life than in many of Marsden’s earlier books including The Rabbits and the Tomorrow series.
John Marsden has written his first book for adults