Outlaw narrative deftly narrows distances
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-