Out­law nar­ra­tive deftly nar­rows dis­tances

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

The bushranger story, like its Amer­i­can cousin the west­ern, is a con­tin­u­ous ne­go­ti­a­tion of dis­tances. In Patrick Hol­land’s new novel, One, it’s those dis­tances — some over­whelm­ing, oth­ers rapidly short­en­ing — that de­fine both its char­ac­ters and their fates. The Ken­niff broth­ers, of­ten re­ferred to as Aus­tralia’s last bushrangers, are os­ten­si­bly the book’s cen­tral sub­ject, yet the novel is as much a por­trait of a new age and a dy­ing breed.

His­to­ri­ans can parse where Hol­land’s in­ven­tions and ex­ag­ger­a­tions take leave of known records, but what has been fash­ioned here is a com­pelling por­trait of im­mi­grants and in­dige­nous peo­ple, law and order, loss and hope.

The novel opens in the mode it sus­tains for nearly its en­tire length: pur­suit. The Ken­niff gang, led by broth­ers Jim and Paddy, has taken its crim­i­nal sta­tus as horse thieves to a new level with a shock­ing crime. Trail­ing them across the Queens­land coun­try­side is a mot­ley col­lec­tion of dis­placed and dis­re­spected souls: Sergeant Nixon, a cru­sad­ing of­fi­cer in­sis­tent on law in a place of great dis­or­der; Skilling­ton, a lad barely out of his teens and much taken with out­law mythol­ogy; and King Ed­ward, a teenage Abo­rig­i­nal tracker re­cruited from a mis­sion.

Hol­land’s nar­ra­tive is for the most part propul­sive, of­ten util­is­ing the chap­ter frag­ments seen in his pre­vi­ous novel, the fre­quently beau­ti­ful Nav­i­ga­tio. As the story moves be­tween hunter and hunted, chap­ters are of­ten re­duced to a para­graph and, as dis­tances fur­ther nar­row, oc­ca­sion­ally even a sin­gle line. Care­fully bal­anced against these height­ened mo­ments of ac­tion are longer and more lyri­cal in­ter­ludes ex­plor­ing the fray­ing in­ner lives of both of­fi­cer and thief. These sec­tions of skil­fully ren­dered hu­man long­ing and loss are canny de­con­struc­tions of male pur­pose and pride — these are lost men, un­cer­tain of how to pro­ceed. Hol­land’s tog­gling be­tween genre thrills and these more del­i­cate ex­panses is con­tin­u­ally ef­fec­tive.

The book’s prose is like­wise flex­i­ble, ca­pa­ble of vary­ing moods. While able to sum­mon a fiercer and more McCarthyesque flair (“He stood his horse there like a sen­try against a belt of chaos that burned black across the plain”) the lan­guage is for the most part more re­strained than that of Hol­land’s ear­lier work, such as the lyri­cal The Mary Smokes Boys. Par­tic­u­larly pleas­ing is the fre­quently coarse dia­logue he gives his char­ac­ters, of­ten funny and raw.

While this res­traint and terse­ness be­fits the sub­ject ma­te­rial, Hol­land’s writ­ing can at other times fal­ter, par­tic­u­larly in its fe­male por­trai­ture and some more breath­less stretches of ro­man­ti­cism (“He had not breathed for days un­til now”, “Nixon’s breath caught in his chest at the sight of her”). His work is surer and more com­fort­able with ge­og­ra­phy, flora, fauna: the novel is a rich cat­a­logue of de­scrip­tions of na­ture and place names, and it wears its re­search and lo­cal knowl­edge com­fort­ably, with­out os­ten­ta­tion.

Yet the book’s true heart lies un­der­neath these sur­face de­tails, in its por­trayal of the dis-

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