Australian novelist Rohan Wilson came roaring out of the starting block with his first novel, The Roving Party , published in 2011 in Australia, and in 2014 by Soho Press for the U.S. market. That first novel described the hunt for aboriginals still residing in Tasmania, Australia’s southernmost island state. In the 19th Century, white European settlers began to capture and eliminate to extinction the native black aborigines in Tasmania, calling this period The Black War. The Roving Party reimagines this period using real historical figures and accounts. The book was shortlisted or won several national and regional awards.
The main character in Wilson’s second novel, Thomas Toosey, was once a member of one of those roving bands, though what he learned in service was that blacks were residents there first, and that a knife is a powerful inducement. Toosey remembers his own family with longing, even though his wife sold his alcoholic self down the river for a few quid more than ten years previously. Living rough in Deloraine after leaving the convict town of Port Arthur, he learns via desperate letter from his son William that his wife has died.
The journey to Launceston and the search for his son, who has been living on the street since the death of his mother, reads like a fever dream: very visual, very sweaty, very terrifying. We are aghast to find Toosey has stolen banknotes from his friend Flynn, and caused a terrible accident to befall Flynn's daughter. Toosey had been looking for enough cash to start a new life away from Tasmania with his son.
Wilson’s special skill is making history come alive; he sets his personal drama within the context of an 1874 railroad protest in Launceston. He makes it epic: characters struggle with life or death, right or wrong, him or me, now or never, as though they ever had any agency and they were not just playthings for the gods. There are so many watchers and witnesses in this novel, they take on the character of a chorus in a Greek tragedy or a Shakespearean meme, able to shift the action minutely. Street urchins, hobos and tramps, hotel workers, cops—many folks are watching this personal struggle play out: Thomas Toosey seeking son William, trailed by revenge-seeking Flynn, in the middle of a city gone berserk.
The opening lines of this novel are visual enough to describe a film, or a manga comic.
"Her head hit the floorboard, bounced, and a fog of ash billowed, thrown so by the motion of her spade."This is William’s mother falling down near-dead from a standing position while sweeping the grate. Her son, William, races in shortly after with a growler of stolen brewery beer to give her, only to discover he needs a doctor instead. Racing away to find a doctor, William is waylaid by a cop who wants to put the twelve-year-old away for the brewery theft.
Right here, right at the start of this novel, we can feel the tension Wilson sets up for us between a grisly realism and an absurd, immovable, buffoonish cop whose comic deafness derails the child’s plans and kills the mother. The rest of the book follows from this cruel dichotomy: absurd life, spectacular death, and the struggle between them. It almost seems if anyone stopped to think for just a second about what they were struggling for, the fight would go out of them, a legitimate philosophical stance and an accurate way to observe the human condition.
"History is the art by which we lead our lives."Once again Wilson has taken a historical moment in Tasmania, looked deeply into its components, and the whole thing bursts into life—into flame, as it were. We reimagine convict life in Port Arthur, the muddy streets of Deloraine, the bustle and insincerity of worldly Launceston…and real moral conundrum. Wilson has one of the ‘orphans’ stand in the shadows, observing the action, knowing more about motivations and outcomes than the combatants engaged in life or death struggle. That orphan can change everything. Will she?
"There is as much ruin comes from love as virtue…Do not follow that fool into his hole. He wanted more for you. You need to want more for yourself."Wilson won another award for this novel, the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction. Definitely worthy of attention, his work is big: it encompasses large, important themes, and at the same time, is completely unique.
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