To Name Those Lost
Blood, gore, slobber, vomit, piss, filth, soot and ashes are splattered across the pages of Rohan Wilson’s new novel, set in a Tasmania far removed from the epicurean Apple Isle of today. The year is 1874, only 70 years after its founding as the harshest penal colony in the British Empire. Tasmania aspires to respectability, commerce and self-government, but the island is still populated by men and women steeped in violence and abuse. Former transportees, bushrangers and draftees in the Black War of genocide against the first Tasmanians mingle with farmers, shopkeepers and publicans; swarms of thieving children fend for themselves in the Dickensian streets of Launceston.
Wilson hooks us into his fast-paced narrative from the opening pages as 12-year-old William Toosey sets out to fetch a doctor for his comatose mother. Waylaid by loutish constables chasing the youngsters who stole beer from a local brewery, young Toosey escapes from their truncheons only to find his mother dead. He writes a letter to his father’s last known address.
The outlaw, ex-drunkard Thomas Toosey’s response is to seek out his son, convert stolen bank notes into gold and then escape the blighted island to the mainland. The owner of the banknotes, another grizzled emancipee named Fitheal Flynn, has other ideas. In a chase recalling a classic western (except it’s on foot), Flynn wants not only his money but unspecified vengeance that has to do with his teenage daughter Caislin, who mysteriously goes about in a hangman’s hood.
Their final encounter comes in a Launceston being looted and burnt by rioters (as actually happened in February 1874, when a protest over a tax imposed by the state to bail out its first railway got out of hand).
The sympathies are with Toosey and his effort to rescue his son. But Wilson keeps the moral balance in a story overhung with dread at the slim odds of Toosey succeeding. Even Toosey admits to his burden of guilt about his dead wife, a lost baby, the uncounted Aboriginals he killed, and his injury to Caislin finally revealed. There is a justice in Wilson’s resolution of this dark and vigorous tale; though the ex-convicts don’t escape the fatal shore, there is redemption for the next generation. Wilson’s superbly taut novel keeps up its pace with spare punctuation and brutal dialogue in a vigorously drawn landscape feverish with the heat of a bushfire summer. JF
Allen & Unwin, 304pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 18, 2014 as "Rohan Wilson, To Name Those Lost". Subscribe here.