A skil­ful, men­ac­ing up­date to a con­vict saga

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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