2018, 445 p.
While writers of historical fiction need to wade into history if their work is not to be rendered ridiculous, it’s less common for historians to publish fiction (well – under their own name, anyway). This is not true for historian Peter Cochrane, who has ranged across Australian history with his academic writing, with published works on John Simpson Kirkpatrick (of Simpson and his donkey fame) in Simpson and the Donkey, the struggle for responsible government in Colonial Ambition (my review here), and most recently in The Fight for White Australia about World War I. These are just the histories of his that I have read (or am reading at the moment): he’s also published a book to accompany the ‘Australians at War’ series and written about Tobruk, among other works.
Cochrane is a fine narrative writer, and this comes through both his histories and also his fiction, of which The Making of Martin Sparrow is his second foray. I was much impressed with an essay he wrote for the Griffith Review on the writing of narrative history (see my comments on the essay here) and I enjoyed seeing him deploying his craft in the fictional The Making of Martin Sparrow.
Martin Sparrow is an expired convict, who has been granted a small holding in early New South Wales. He is no great farmer and in debt, and as the book opens, he has been flooded out as has everyone else along the Hawkesbury River in 1806. Like many other convicts, he is lured by the idea of an internal hinterland to the west, far from the brutality of the penal colony, where he can live free. He is not a brave man, but in the aftermath of the flood, he decides to take his chances. Events occur suddenly, and the course of events ricochet into different directions as Sparrow acts in ways that he would not have imagined: sometimes led on by others, other times acting on impulse.
Set on the Hawkesbury River, this book instantly invites comparisons with Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. But this is no domestic drama: for those who’ve read The Secret River, this book is set more in the brutish world of Smasher Sullivan than in William Thornhill’s morally-conflicted travails. Life ‘back home’ in England is only obliquely mentioned, and action is set firmly within the penal colony with its own corruptions and violence, where everyone is scrabbling to find a toe-hold in a ‘new’ country that is very old, with the mindset and practices of ‘home’.
The book has a wide range of characters, and I found myself turning often to his ‘Dramatis Personae’ in the opening pages, helpfully arranged by location and role. The book is divided into five parts, with many (67) short chapters. The book has a filmic quality with a great deal of dialogue and cutting between scenes. However, I’m not sure that I was convinced by the dialogue. A number of his characters speak with the stiff formality of an educated background and a literary culture and Cochrane has clearly chosen to give them this voice. While I recognize that transported convicts did come from a range of educational backgrounds, I’m not sure that it would manifest itself in their speech in this way.
His characters, particularly Martin Sparrow, are well-drawn. He is not necessarily your ‘good man who was done wrong’, and at various times he displays duplicity, fear and violence. It is a very male environment, as New South Wales at this time certainly was, and women have a hard time of it. There is settler and indigenous violence, and the book is not overlaid by twenty-first century politics.
Being fiction, there are no footnotes but in an afterword, Cochrane does signpost his influences and support his introduction of several plot-lines that are not part of our commonly-held view of penal NSW, most particularly in relation to women.
He also mentions his own experience of the land west of the Hawkesbury – a rather risky admission given the grief that Kate Grenville was given her when she described licking her salty lips on a rough crossing on the Palm Beach to Ettalong Ferry and extrapolating this to the sea travel for The Secret River. (See Inga Clendinnen’s Quarterly Essay: The History Question). But here, his own experience of hiking in what are now the Wollemi and Gardens of Stone National Parks informs his really beautiful descriptive writing of landscape, which is so evocative that you can almost see it yourself. The sense of place runs throughout the book, from the cold dripping wet, to the mountains that fold one onto the other and the strewn wrack of a flood.
Actually, it would make a damned good film, with an ending left ambiguous enough to be enticing. It is a nuanced portrayal of a penal settlement and human nature.
My rating: 9/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library