Cover of book: The Drover’s Wife

Leah Purcell
The Drover’s Wife

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this review is some years late.

As a playscript, Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife was given its rounds of critical acclaim and awards attention across 2016-17, taking out the Victorian Prize for Literature and the NSW Premier’s Book of the Year, among other ribbons. In this new iteration, titled The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson, Purcell novelises her brutal and critical reply to Henry Lawson’s 1892 short story, in which an unnamed woman struggles with a snake and four children. Country is the enemy, and the hardened woman a virtue.

We follow a suite of besieged characters on an ultra-violent frontier on Ngarigo Country, as the colony edges over the Snowy Mountains. In its plot, the novel is a near-identical offering to the play. For those unfamiliar with it, Purcell flips the antagonist–protagonist casting of Lawson’s original – revealing the violence of the frontier for all involved, but mincing no words about who suffers the bruises on their knuckles, and who comes out without a face or a jaw.

In Lawson’s story, a woman awaiting her husband’s return from a six-month droving trip encounters a snake, implicitly driven there by a local Aboriginal man who allows it under the house after misstacking a woodpile. She and her dog set to work slaughtering it.

Unlike Lawson’s original, Purcell’s story is one of cowardice, tensions across race and class in feminism, and disenfranchisement through violence. Molly Johnson, the titular character who awaits her husband’s return, has four children and is also heavily pregnant. When Nate and his wife, Louisa, Londoner bureaucrats and feminists, arrive to act as the town’s law enforcement, they are greeted with a scene of colonial brutality far beyond their readiness. Yadaka, a Guugu Yimithirr man and a former circus performer, emerges in this fog with a chain around his neck.

Between snakes and beasts, bureaucracy and policy, food and infection, escaped horses and opportunistic swagmen, what begins is a fight for survival that is both tedious and urgent for those who live it. This is no mutual-conflict western, but nor are Indigenous peoples reduced to moral ciphers and passive victims. The tussle and fightback are unmistakeable. Purcell resists what could be an easy, moralistic narrative to leave us with something that is much harder to swallow. No person in her story, despite their pretensions of fairness or pragmatism, goes unscathed without breaching either principle.

The real meat of the novel (and Purcell’s play) is its characters. New characters trick, trip and undermine the racial anxieties that the colony has about Country and its peoples, while old characters are thoroughly re-created with their own surprises and tensions. These surprises don’t happen, as you might think, in the moments of rapidly escalating crises, but rather in the natural lulls of the plot when guards are down – ours and theirs.

Bringing the play to the page in a novel was never going to be an easy thing to do. Purcell is an astute, esteemed and prolific writer, whose graceful and precise talent is largely contained to writing for stage and screen. Prose accounts of the action read like stage directions, economical and direct, but at other times this leap to the page is a surprising one. To introduce warmth and all-important ethical perspectives, Purcell switches between a third-person account of events and first-person reflections of the emotional and subjective impact of these events. These reflections become meatier as the book rolls on, but in the early chapters they often explain what has already been laid out, what is more powerfully implied in the undertow of character growth, or what might be better left unsaid for the pace of the unfurling mystery.

Still, The Drover’s Wife ultimately pulls you along like the floodwaters and the chase that drive its metaphorical urgency. All stiffness can be forgiven because of Purcell’s particular gift for plot. Any overwrought self-justification in her characters is quickly demolished with an escalating series of crises and interests across race, Indigeneity and class that, after long and dull introductions to the life of a drover’s wife, culminate in undermining everything we know about our characters.

Readers who do their due diligence will be rewarded for pushing through the first half of the book – which at times feels like a difficult and unclear journey without a solid purpose. Among the soliloquies that take up the first half of the book, justifiably reflecting the maddening and violent boredom of the frontier, are clues and objects of significance that become apparent in the final arc of the text. The last 150 pages of the book are impossible to put down, devastating in their delivery. If I could offer one critique of this section, and it is less a critique than evidence of the appetite Purcell creates, it is that I wish they went for longer – diving deeper into the dissolution of a fragile order, rather than reflecting the brutal pace at which everything in the settler’s imaginary can fall apart.

While Purcell says an inspiration for her play was the vengeance western of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, the racial counterviolence of Indigenous people contained within these pages is much more restrained. Every violent act is purposeful, even when it has the blur of a spree. Callbacks to the original Lawson story are also powerfully and economically distributed through the text – reminding us that Lawson wrote this story just as events and histories such as these were taking place all along the southern and eastern coasts. As a reply to Lawson, Purcell issues a final blow that should shake the mythos of the original to the core.

A novel that takes no small requirement of good faith and work to get the most out of, Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife offers the edge of one of this continent’s sharpest storytellers on one of its cutting colonial stories.

Alison Whittaker

Hamish Hamilton, 288pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 25, 2020 as "Leah Purcell, The Drover’s Wife".

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