A skilful, menacing update to a convict saga
There’s a long tradition in Tasmanian literature of the gothic convict saga. In fact, Tasmanians do the convict novel better than anyone. We have a wealth of mythology, trope and imagery on which to draw and an outsized sense of our own past, a past that’s visible in the architecture wherever you go on the island.
Our best known book, Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life, provided the template and writers have iterated on it down the generations. Think particularly of Richard Butler, Bryce Courtenay, Christopher Koch and Richard Flanagan. Now Rachel Leary has provided us with a contemporary, skilful update on the dustier of these traditions in her new novel Bridget Crack.
We first meet Bridget working the potato fields for her assigned master. She’s a young woman, transported to Van Diemen’s Land for passing counterfeit coins, and her new life in the colony is a mean one. Her master, Pigot, is needlessly cruel to his assignees, and when another convict falls ill Pigot leaves him to die alone in a hut and then buries him in a shallow grave. Bridget realises her predicament. She knows if she stays, she’ll be next. She steals some food and tobacco and makes her bolt for freedom.
This is where the book starts to surprise us. Bridget is not a passive, suffering prisoner as many of the fictional convicts of the past have been. She is casting her own dice. In fact, you’d need to go back to Robert Close’s portrayal of Eliza Callaghan in 1957 to find another character that resembles Bridget, a woman who refuses to bend to a patriarchal system of justice. But whereas Eliza Callaghan relied on the power of her femininity to pull herself out of a scrape, Bridget gets by on her wits and bravery alone.
It’s refreshing to see some old tropes turned on their head and the book manages to keep defamiliarising these narrative moments right to the end. After escaping from Pigot’s farm, Bridget finds herself in the company of a group of bushrangers led by the formidable Matt Sheedy. These are not good men. Immediately, Bridget is drawn into their hard-living, harddrinking methods. They rob and kill settlers up and down the Midlands and, when the police presence becomes too threatening, they retreat into the scrub to hide among the network of convict shepherds and absconders along the frontier. There are latent feelings between Bridget and Matt that suggest we may be on