The month started in its usual hectic fashion with medical appointments, grandchildren overnighting, Brisbane Greeter and Visitor Information Centre volunteering, TV viewing too good to miss such as Broadchurch, and a single event which set me on my feast of historical novels. I can’t remember how long it would have been since I had been invited to a cocktail party, to the point that I had to be updated on what was suitable attire in this day and age. There I met an avid reader who sang the praises of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, and so I set out on my historical foray in Iceland.
Write about what you know is a common mantra in creative writing lectures, and thus Hannah put her experience of history lessons as an exchange student in Reykjavik to good use in describing the last months of a convicted murderess, Agnes Magnusdottir, who has been condemned to the chopping block in the early nineteenth century. We learn of her past through the attempts at spiritual ministrations by a very inexperienced pastor who becomes infatuated with her and her story. The family which has been ordered to house her during the last part of her sentence is initially threatened by her presence, but as they overhear her story in the close confines of their mean dwelling and experience her capabilities and kindnesses, they are overwhelmed with grief as she is taken away to her destiny.
The story is based on fact, and researched very thoroughly, as is obvious from the research extracts which preface each chapter. The author’s skill at putting flesh on these extracts results in a very moving insight into the minds of the condemned, and I could not help but compare it with the current situation in Indonesia. The story is told from the perspective of all the major characters, each of which is in the thrall of superstitions based on paganism or Christianity. If you are not familiar with Icelandic history and wish to be enlightened on some aspects, this novel is a good starting point. Did you know that Iceland was once a Danish colony? No? Neither did I.
Now that I was on a magical history tour, I chanced upon Beggar’s Feast by Randy Boyagoda, featured on the local library’s recommended reading shelf. This time the tale is based on the author’s family history – a great uncle who was suspected of murdering his first two wives. I was transported from the Arctic climes to the tropics of Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was once known. Once more superstitions of pagan and religious foundations play a large part in the story, with a large helping of colonialism and politics. The era encompasses the time my mother and her family emigrated by ship to Australia from England in the 1920s, so it held a fascination for me as to the kind of city Colombo was when they passed through. Here my grandfather bought Nana a brooch made of peacock feathers. He died of typhoid in Brisbane not long afterwards. Peacock feathers were subsequently seen as bearers of bad luck. Did I mention pagan superstitions?
But I digress. Self-named Sam Kandy is abandoned as a child because he does not have a particular interaction with a crow. This lack is believed to be a bad omen. Thus he begins a journey which is quite a saga for a volume of only 310 pages. Over his lifetime of almost 100 years, his fortunes ebb and flow according to his relationships, the changing political scene of his country, man’s so-called ‘progress’, and his determination to ‘get ahead’ at any cost. The latter involves disposing of two wives and lavishing his offspring with goods rather than his presence. His third wife is his moral saviour, despite their huge age and religious differences. His first marriage was based on his need to prove to the village that gave up on him that he was worthwhile, not a sound basis for any marriage. The rights this marriage entitled him to are satirised in the final days of his life when the village is firstly earnestly researched by the intelligentsia, then turned into a Sri Lankan Disneyland.
Initially I struggled with this novel because of the writing style – quite often no complete sentences. Then I realised it was a conversational tone such as that one would experience when talking to many folk from the sub-continent. The story line soon had me over that particular hurdle. All in all, a rattling good yarn.
Now to the history at my back door. I had heard Kate Grenville interviewed when The Secret River was first published ten years ago. I thought then to put it on my ‘to do’ list, but it took that same library display to allow me to tick it off. And am I glad I have, although its contents are quite disturbing in parts.
Again, a family history is the basis of this tale of colonial Australia, and is the result of much research fleshed out by a brilliant storyteller. Again, a young man bowed down by the unfairness of society makes good, with all the ups and downs life hands him along the way. He breaks a few of the ten commandments in the process, and one is asked to cast judgement on whether necessity could excuse his lapses.
Initially he falls foul of the law by supporting his family through theft. In England this was a hanging offence at the time, but a letter begging clemency (how often have we heard that word lately?) resulted in his being transported to New South Wales to be in the custody of his wife. He finds that the hard work he was used to in his former life pays off well and truly in this new land where his goal is to have his own property. His wife wants to go Home, but that soon falls off his life goals list when he realises what he would forsake to return there as ‘an old lag’.
He discovers the possibilities of the Hawkesbury River while working for a lighterman who bought and sold goods up and down the coast. Unfortunately for those early settlers, Aboriginal tribes had appreciated this land for centuries beforehand, and the inevitable occurs when cultures clash.
I must admit I speed read the massacre scene. I have just spent some time with gentlemen from the Butchalla tribe as we worked towards restoring their cultural homeland to its original state vegetation wise. It was too soon for me. If you want a realistic picture of what it meant to be a felon in England in the early eighteenth century, or an Aboriginal on coveted land at the same time, I can highly recommend this book.
Both the fathers in the last two novels alienated some of their children through their actions. Both had backgrounds which they wished forgotten. Sam is at his worst when there is any suggestion he could be a lackey as in a driver for those of higher standing, simply because of the colour of his skin. William is always fearful that he will be judged by his past, which does happen occasionally.
Now to see what April has to offer in literature and Comfy Chair time. I have just started The Outlander, and after enjoying three consecutive books of quality writing, my initial reaction after one and a half chapters was ‘trash’. However, I persevered a little longer and I am hooked. I will get back to you.
If you want to get up close and personal with one of Australia’s greatest living writers, Kate Grenville will be in conversation with Melissa Lucashenko, May 5 6.30pm at The Greek Club, South Brisbane. The cost is $15 and bookings can be made on 07 3846 3422 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org