Sur­vivor’s saga from an ex­plorer of the odd

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Jane Raw­son is an ex­plorer of the odd. Her 2013 de­but novel A Wrong Turn in the Of­fice of Un­made Lists was a dystopian voy­age into nar­ra­tive im­plau­si­bil­ity, fea­tur­ing a ru­ined Mel­bourne and Cal­i­for­nia’s Bay Area. More re­cently her novella Formalde­hyde (2015) fea­tured a dead pro­tag­o­nist in a love tri­an­gle. Both were works of ec­cen­tric orig­i­nal­ity.

When from From the Wreck, ar­rived in the post, how­ever, my heart sank a lit­tle: the cover all rus­set and sepia, colours of nostal­gia, the slightly spec­tral im­age, the his­tor­i­cal story with a fam­ily con­nec­tion. I was con­cerned that Raw­son, fu­elled by some suc­cess but also find­ing her ta­lents un­der-read ( A Wrong Turn in the Of­fice of Un­made Lists won the Small Press Network’s prize for most un­der­rated book), a curse of small mar­kets, had turned to the main­stream and that most over­pop­u­lated genre in Aus­tralian literature, the his­tor­i­cal novel.

The his­tor­i­cal part is true, but thank­fully, Raw­son hasn’t sold out on idio­syn­crasy and it isn’t long be­fore the reader finds them­selves ab­sorbed in a multi-per­spec­ti­val story that is strange and af­fect­ing.

The story is based on the wreck­ing in 1859 of the steamship Ad­mella off the coast of South Aus­tralia, of which the au­thor’s great-great grand­fa­ther, Ge­orge Hills, was a sur­vivor.

Raw­son plays with the truth from the out­set, re­duc­ing the num­ber of sur­vivors of the wreck from 24 to 2, Ge­orge and the enig­matic Brid­get Led­with, who is not what she seems. In ad­di­tion to feed­ing off the bliss­fully wet flesh of his dead ship­mates, Ge­orge is also trou­bled by how he was suc­coured by Led­with on the wreck. He has com­mit­ted can­ni­bal­ism and been un­faith­ful to his fi­ancee and his sur­vivor guilt has un­bal­anced him.

One way of think­ing about spec­u­la­tive fic­tion is that it takes ideas and ex­tends them into realms that no longer need to be mea­sured against re­al­ity. At first it seems that Raw­son might be lead­ing us down the path of evo­lu­tion­ary aber­ra­tion. The early Dar­winian con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Ge­orge and his brother-in-law Wil­liam is a kind of scientific red her­ring that leaves you won­der­ing whether the plot is per­haps or­gan­ised around the sub­sti­tu­tion of Dar­winian for La­mar­ck­ian evo­lu­tion, in which or­gan­isms are adap­tive within their life­times.

But that would be too sim­ple. The real rea­son for Ge­orge’s sur­vival against the odds is that Brid­get Led­with is an alien. Again, the sto­ry­line is a case of ex­tend­ing an idea, specif­i­cally the idea beau­ti­fully ex­plored in Peter God­frey’s Other Minds: The Oc­to­pus, the Sea, and the Deep Ori­gins of Con­scious­ness: “If we can make con­tact with cephalopods as sen­tient be­ings, it is not be­cause of a shared his­tory, not be­cause of kin­ship, but be­cause evo­lu­tion built minds twice over. This is prob­a­bly the clos­est we will come to meet­ing an in­tel­li­gent alien.”

Why not then make the res­cuer of Ge­orge an alien cephalo­pod gifted not just with telepa­thy, but with its in­ver­te­brate shapeshift­ing abil­ity rad­i­cally en­hanced. Raw­son’s alien is not just a ship­wreck siren with its good in­ten­tions mis­un­der­stood, but a cat, and a mark on the back of Ge­orge’s old­est son, Henry. Im­por­tantly we are given the alien’s side of the story, too. It’s a crea­ture de­fined not by malev­o­lence but lone­li­ness and it’s hard to imag­ine lone­li­ness more ex­treme than be­ing the only one of your kind.

Henry has a trou­bled re­la­tion­ship with his mark, whose de­sires are not al­ways com­pat­i­ble with his. Ge­orge is also trou­bled by its pres­ence on his son. Some­how he is aware of its pedi­gree and at times he is tempted to vi­o­lently ex­cise it. A num­ber of mi­nor plots help thicken the story such as the fate of Henry’s younger brother Ge­orge and the story of the un­con­ven­tional and un­flap­pable Beatrice Gall­wey who lives with her grand­son in the sta­bles of the Hills’ abode.

In less ca­pa­ble hands these nar­ra­tive facts

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