Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Roving Party Review

Review by Carmel Bird of The Roving Party by Rohan Wilson.

This review is published in Australian Book Review - June 2011

Stories of the impact of European discovery, exploration, invasion and settlement on Australia are naturally a source of fascination to novelists. The microcosm of the island of Tasmania, with its cruel yet beautiful landscapes, and its unforgiving weather, offers these stories with a special kind of eerie horror. Against the landscape, the stories emerge both in concert and in counterpoint, describing the stains which forever disfigure and haunt the place. Tasmania was less a frontier in the American sense of the word, than a dead end.

Although the blood of indigenous Tasmanians still flows in the veins of many people, the principal narrative of the violent fracture and disappearance of the tribes is one of doom and destruction, and like many tales of the conflicts between outsiders and indigenous peoples, the stories are often inhabited by strange heroes and villains. The geography of the island ensures that the atmosphere is bleak, with a sense of terminal horror in the making (an atmosphere notably captured in the 2009 movie Van Diemen’s Land). The non-fiction works of such writers as Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan have vividly documented this period, giving rise to what have been called the history wars between historians who believe the first Tasmanians suffered genocide at the hands of the British, and those who deny this interpretation of events. Fiction, of course, has licence to move into the realm of the imagination, taking inspiration from the apparent facts of history, and moving into the minds and hearts of characters, some of whom have been plucked from history, some of whom have been invented by writers.

This novel is set in the time when Governor Arthur was bringing in his draconian reforms to the colony, ensuring that Van Diemen’s Land was in fact the fiercest dictatorship in the world, an abyss, a hell on earth. In the course of the narrative, Arthur cancels the bounty he had put on the heads of members of indigenous tribes, so that the enterprise driving the group described as the ‘roving party’ who are hunting down the tribesmen, after days and nights of brutal and grotesque activity, is void. The historical figure that looms large in the story is John Batman who is (in the history books) seen as the villain who tricked the tribes of Port Phillip in Victoria into handing over the land on which Melbourne now stands. In The Roving Party Batman is still living in Van Diemen’s Land, leading a very small and motley group in search of native people for capture, involving also massacres. Batman’s group consists of a boy, four convicts, two black trackers, a farmhand, and Black Bill.

Black Bill is the conflicted central character. He sets up a literary echo of Joe Christmas in Light in August, being a black man brought up as white. The abiding motif of the book is smoke, and Black Bill lodges in the reader’s consciousness veiled in a wreath or cloud or smudge of smoke, as if his very being is veiled, ghostly. There are the campfires of the roving party, the pipes the men smoke, and frequently Black Bill scans the heavens for the smoke of tribal fires. At the heart of the narrative are his dreams in which he talks to his unborn child.

Although the whole book follows the party as they roam about the harsh forbidding landscape shooting people and dogs in detailed realistic scenes of graphic gore, there is a deep mythic level located within Black Bill. The novel opens with reference to his unspoken tribal name, a name he has ‘no good use for’, and ends as he whispers the ‘secret name’ of his dead baby son. He longs, at the end, for future dreams in which this dead son will visit him. There is a terrible beauty in this redemptive act of naming. The name ‘Black Bill’ is a nasty British nick-name, and in fact the character is more often designated by the narrative as ‘the Vandemonian’, the only character so named. It raises him to a grand status, yet marks him out for doom. The dead child works as a symbol of the obliteration of the tribes, for it (the mother says it was female, Black Bill says it was male) was in fact monstrously ill-formed and hopeless, like a vestigial gesture of nature. Yet for Black Bill and Katherine (the mother) it remains the spiritual link to themselves, and hence to the blood of the tribe. The baby’s body is incinerated at birth, and Katherine wears the polished skull ‘mooncoloured, pale and jawless’ on a cord around her neck. Bill cups the skull in his hands and whispers to it, ‘desolate of heart’.

If there is one adjective that would cover the story of the roving party it is that one – desolate. There is a catalogue of rapes and murders: ‘As he surveyed the great unbroken blackness circling the camp he was caught from behind by the hair and a broad winking blade cleaved his throat to the vertebra.’ And against this relentless bone-splitting, blood-letting savagery, swirls the sad lyricism of: ‘Bereft of their women and children the clansmen crossed their clanhold at a pace and progressed along the frontier as if they were as insubstantial as the stays of mistfilled light between the silver wattles.’

It comes as no surprise that this grim and astonishing novel was chosen as the winner of this year’s Vogel award. END

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