This is not like any book set in Tasmania’s past I’ve read. In fact it’s not like any Australian historical novel I’ve read. Most of the ones I’ve read attempt to grapple with the terrible truth of our past, the national myths we tell ourselves. There are elements of that in A Treacherous Country but on the whole it is doing something stranger.
Things begin murkily, with a newly arrived young Englishman, son of landed gentry, setting out from Hobart-town some forty years after the founding of the colony. He arrived with a mission: to find one Maryanne Maginn, who was transported for a petty crime as a girl. She’s now wanted back in England by a Mrs Prendergast, the guardian of Susannah, who our English gentleman wants to marry. He believes that if he finds Maryanne, Mrs Prendergast will approve the engagement.
The 25-year-old Englishman, Gabriel Fox, is in his own words “a Fool, perhaps, but not medically speaking, an Idiot.” He loses most of his belongings in a card game, and ends up with two seemingly useless harpoons instead. Later he ignores advice not to eat a dubious rabbit stew, and is then robbed on the highway north. He finds himself stumbling cluelessly through life, “like trying to see a figure through a window on a dark night in a storm, while blindfolded.” As Mrs Prendergast tells him, he’s a “white and weedy” man, “sorely in need of a making!”
But Fox, our narrator, is a loveable fool, and an easy character to cheer for. Accompanied by a hairy Irish man he calls his Cannibal, he sets out to rid himself of the useless harpoons, getting distracted from his real purpose. Over the course of three days, he ends up at a whale station, is involved in a dramatic and fatal hunt, and eventually returns to Hobart. Throughout his ordeal he wrestles with the fate of his mother, “gently detained” in an attic back in England. It’s all a bit random, but that is in part the point, in a novel that is a lot about the vagaries of Fate (Fox charmingly capitalises whatever he feels like). A lot happens, but it doesn’t feel like it, the pace rarely rising above a gentle stroll on a misty moor. To some extent, I wanted it to be punctuated by something shocking, but I admired the commitment to mood.
There are chain gangs and redcoats, and nods to the dispossession of Tasmania’s first peoples, but A Treacherous Country is far more interested in the inner worlds of its characters, none of whom are the typical stock characters of a colonial romp. These are people who are all a bit lost, who have wandered into life’s cul-de-sacs and are not quite sure how to get out. They wrestle with the big questions – fate, friendship, love, mortality, living a good and worthy life – and have found something hollow at the heart of their existence and their purchase on an uncertain land. I suppose their unhappinesses and the thick atmosphere over them could be seen as a product of the terrible start Australia got off to under British rule. Fox struggles with the shackles Convention, “a Suffocating Net that keeps us low, and away from each other,” and is roundly mocked for his pretensions. I was reminded a lot of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Buried Giant, which shares a watery mood and a somewhat fantastical setting that is ultimately beside the point.
I read this slowly, because these are sentences to be savoured. The writing is playful and otherworldly. Riding out of town, Fox finds himself “on the very brink of some discovery of utmost strangeness.” The metaphors are precise and often witty:
leaves flashing like schools of silver-green fish, on trees whose bark rushed and curled like running water.
A woman’s hands are “like trembling Autumn leaves. Not leaves: the skeletons of leaves, after the fabric of the plant has decayed, and nothing remains but a tracery of veins, fine and frail.” Although meandering, I found this an ultimately rewarding and moving novel.
Gay rating: 1/5 for a nod to the existence of queer folk in the colony