Friday, January 10, 2014

The Roving Party by Rohan Wilson

This remarkably assured debut novel by Tasmanian author Rohan Wilson is a grim but evocative retelling of the clearing of Van Diemen’s Land for white settlers. Darkly imagined and unblinkingly told, the story features Black Bill, a black man raised white, as a key figure in the 'roving party' that travels the countryside seeking to capture or kill aborigines in the area that came to be called Tasmania. Black Bill is also called The Vandemonian. 'Vandemonian' is a term white settlers of Van Dieman’s Land called themselves.

Leading the roving party is John Batman, a well-known historical figure born in Sydney of British parents and who settled in Tasmania’s northeast. Batman led roving parties over a period of years during the ‘Black Wars’ (1828-1832) that is the subject of this novel. The roving party has two more black scouts, both from Parramatta near Sydney, who join for payment. Much of the rest of the group are poor damned men, recently released white convicts who seek government pardons or land grants for their efforts. There is a young boy, too, who follows, watches, and learns.

Wilson balances on a knife’s edge in re-creating the real life that fills this story, rounding out his two main characters by instilling in them a steely-eyed savagery, an ability to coldly reason and plot their advantages, and a blessed and unexpected charity. Rich language and complex characterizations make this tragedy the marvel it is, and Wilson is positively Shakespearean in adding comic relief with the occasional buffoonery of some of the rovers.

The raid depicted in this novel is a recorded event that took place in September 1829. Batman led an attack on a large group of Plindermairhemener clan aborigines who were headed by the witch Manalargena.
"Foremost among that singular horde was Manalargena who carried across his shoulder a waddy shaped from blackwood and stained with the filth of war…his wife had ochred his hair into long ringlets as precise as woven rope…the beard on his chin was matted, and the lank twists as red as a rooster’s wattle jiggled as he walked about…"

On this raid, Batman takes hostage a young mother and her child. He sends the mother off to the penal colony down south while he keeping the child in his own household. But it is Black Bill we watch with such terrible intensity throughout the novel, praying that his motivation becomes, if not acceptable, at least understandable. He knows Manalargena, and hosted his band at his home.

Riveting though the story may be, it is the clear and gorgeous prose and rich imagining that held me. Wilson captured the sense and sound and feel of the men as they trekked through snow and rain, trailing the aborigines as they fled the bloodthirst.
"The men had their ears bent listening to Bill's tale and when he paused to take a sip of his tea they also raised their mugs and drank. The Vandemonian flicked a finger at the billycan in the fire for another serving and the boy obliged by lifting it away with a stick and pouring using his sleeve tugged over his fingers against the burning handle. With a fresh steaming mug in his hands Bill went on and the men listened now like he was giving scripture."
There is no apology in this work: we feel transported to a different time. Whatever dislocation non-Australians might feel with the language, the weapons, the plants and animals unique to the continent ‘down under’, one knows in one’s heart and gut the bald truth of the white man’s sense of ‘manifest destiny’: What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine. That each of our continents experienced it makes this terrible tale no less potent.

Originally published by Allen & Unwin in Australia in 2011, this book won the Vogel Literary Award there in that year. It has also won the 2013 Tasmania Literary Award Margaret Scott Prize, and the 2012 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award. It was shortlisted for the numerous other awards. It deserves all this attention for as a debut this is an extraordinary achievement. For more history of the time and place recorded in this fiction, see this Wikipedia entry for Ben Lomond Mountain in northeast Tasmania.

It turns out that Black Bill was real, too. His name was William Ponsonby. Rohan Wilson shares with us the experience of writing his first novel and winning the Vogel Prize. His writing schedule and methods are revealed here in an interview.

This book is being released in the United States in February 2014 by Soho Publishing and is available for pre-order. I was given a copy in exchange for an honest review.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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