“A vision of past savagery that lies maddeningly between truth and fiction”: James Dunk reviews Sarah Drummond’s ‘The Sound’

The Sound by Sarah Drummond. Fremantle Press (2016).

the-soundSarah Drummond’s debut book, Salt Story: Of Sea-Dogs and Fisherwomen was a rare one – a non-fictional account of the sea and its people arising from the author’s own experience. It was short-listed for the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards in 2014.

Drummond’s second novel, The Sound, fictionalises the lived experience of others, carefully reconstructing the world of the sealers who worked in the hinterland of British colonialism in Australia in the 1820s. It vividly recreates King George’s Sound, a bay at the south-western tip of the continent, as a theatre of cross purposes, of freedom and death – a beautiful place tortured by European savagery.

Drummond’s novel is a beautifully written excursion into the ethics of this violent world. Her protagonist is William Hook, a Maori man who crosses the Tasman in search of the sealers who sacked his village. To find them, he joins a sealing crew. The novel follows closely the small band from Hobart, through the islands of Bass Strait, to the Sound, dwelling on the relationships ‘Billhook’ forms with the white sealers and with the Aboriginal women in the group. Some are coerced; all are pursuing private agendas. They span the gamut of privilege and agency.

In Salamanca Bay, Hobart’s now charming and genteel dockside district, two heavy black pots stand in commemoration of the whaling industry. On ship decks, on the islands of Bass Strait, and on southern shores, blubber was boiled down for days at a stretch and drained into barrels of oil. These cauldrons now stand as opaque relics of ecological destruction. Phillip Hoare’s Leviathan, or the Whale (Fourth Estate, 2009) illuminated this history with its winsome, devastating portrayal of whale life and the life of whalers. Leviathan ties the early march of industrial progress to the hunting of cetaceans: the whales of the oceans died in thousands to light the streets of European cities.

‘Sealing’ was like ‘whaling’ (words which elide the black pots and bloody harpoons), except that where whales were fearsome quarry, seals were gormless creatures waiting beside the sea for men to club them. Graphic passages in The Sound describe this killing. Drummond’s language here is vivid and precise. She conjures the past in its infinitesimal details without labouring these details: a difficult balance to achieve. In less elegant historical novels, the paraphrasing of technical information gleaned from long researches easily breaks whatever spell may be obtaining. Drummond, however, deploys the fine grain of the past in order to bring the past credibly and compellingly into the present.

The Sound is set in the world of the sealers, deserters, and escapees who fled from colonial society and authority to the southern shore of the Australian continent and the islands of the Bass Strait. The Sound’s dust jacket calls it a ‘violent and lawless world.’ It was constituted in defiance of the authority and regularity, the sovereignty and justice of imperial Britain and in flagrant disregard for the subjectivity and sovereignty of Aboriginal people. The Empire, for all its sins, brought an air of bureaucratic formality to the areas it directly controlled, and this proscribed certain behaviours. At its territorial fringe, however, those who fled its restraints wielded European knowledge and technology licentiously.

Few of us read to be brutalised, but the problem of writing about the past is that it was often brutal. Penny Russell’s history of colonial mores, Savage or Civilised?: Manners in Colonial Australia (UNSW Press, 2010) maps the navigation of etiquette in colonial society. Although her work has mostly treated civility, rather than savagery, Russell is hardly a historian of niceness, seeking merely to divert. She delves into the archive of polite and impolite gestures, reading the construction of colonial society with a critical eye. Other literature, both fictional and non-fictional, simply conjures a past in which ‘civilisation’ really indicated virtue and restraint. The virtuous frontier summoned by this writing is a pleasant place to visit: a place where the dramas of individual and familial life can be played out in the curated world of the ‘pioneers’, rather than at the actual ragged edge of empire. Savagery is harder. To write about it is to either demonise it – to make it fundamentally, unfeasibly other – or to do the unpleasant work of imagining ourselves into the emotional and intellectual spaces in which savagery seems civilised. Nietzsche’s abyss threatens to open also in ourselves during the act of gazing.

The shroud lying over the Australian history of sealing, and sexual and labour slavery implied by it, is partly the deliberate work of its denizens, opposed as they were to authority, regularity, and record-keeping. But it has been reinforced by modern sensibilities. Although in many ways sealers and whalers were colonial pioneers, and even excelled in certain of the traits we laud in our more palatable pioneers, Australian narratives have neglected them. They represent the colonial darkness over which the brief, but rancorous history wars were fought. The literate public has tended to allow them the seclusion they themselves sought. As if they were not also the product of our empires, and builders of our ‘civilisations’.

Despite Lynnette Russell’s excellent Roving Mariners: Australian Aboriginal Whalers and Sealers in the Southern Oceans, 1790-1870 (State University of New York Press, 2012), then, the world of these sealers remains for the most part an informal, uncertain one. In fiction, however, such a world can still be effectively explored. The mainspring behind The Sound is an unassuming, but entirely enthralling statement made by William Hook, to Edmund Lockyer, who arrived at King George’s Sound in 1826 as commandant of a new British settlement. The text, which appears in Historical Records of Australia, is reproduced in full on Drummond’s website, amongst a plethora of biographical and historical writing, all anchored by conventional references in the established historical record. It bears witness to crimes by sealers against the indigenous people of the Sound. British law, which had been largely theoretical, was breaking in.

Drummond uses Billhook to guide her through the mechanical difficulty of writing about savagery, that of perspective. How can we get close enough to savagery to see it properly? Drummond makes ‘Billhook’ the victim of a massacre in adjacent imperial borderlands – a real attack carried out in 1817 in Otago by James Kelly and the crew of the Sophia – but one not clearly linked with William Hook. By this means, readers only gradually enter the mindset of the sealers; the ugliness is introduced in stages. When we encounter genuine brutality, therefore, we are imaginatively involved with the brutalisers. The clubbing of seal cubs pales beside the abduction and rape of Aboriginal women. This was what transpired at the edge of empire.

Or was it? There is little evidence of precisely what happened amongst these sealers and whalers. This dearth has allowed space for prevarication, and justified silence. This savagery was a thing half known. Certain ‘cultural warriors’ sacralise a threshold of written factuality – something only achieved within that imperial formality; everything beyond is speculative, even malicious. This self-serving standard protects that image of the virtuous pioneers, who wrote their own histories.

In her dispute with Kate Grenville, author of a different imagined account of frontier brutality, The Secret River, the historian Inga Clendinnen (2006) argued that historians are set apart from novelists by their ‘moral contract’ with the past. At the end of The Sound, a note claims this moral authority for the author, if not the novel. Readers are directed to Drummond’s website, where a collection of closely-referenced biographical pieces explore the recorded past in the manner of what she calls ‘straight history’. Fiction, however, may be bolder than history, and the novel itself follows, imaginatively, the slender evidence to its likely conclusions.

Drummond is contractually bound not to the past, as it actually was, but to the problem of human savagery. It was unpleasant to get close enough to the characters to write them compellingly – particularly the sealer, Samuel Bailey. “I’m completely stalled with that writing,” Drummond (2013, para. 12) blogged at one point. “I don’t like them. I don’t want to hang out with Samuel Bailey every day. When I do, he does my fucking head in. I feel crazy by the end of the day. I just want to climb out of my own brain.”

Why take up such a project, without an injunction from actual victims to bear witness? Drummond uses the conceit of Bluebeard’s chamber to explore her fascination with Bailey. Like Bluebeard’s young bride, she blundered her way into a dangerous contract, telling herself ‘his beard is not quite so blue’. Researching, and particularly writing, was for Drummond the opening of the chamber, and the loss of this cultivated innocence. “When you shine a light in a dark cave,” Drummond (2013, para 29) writes of the minds of the sealers, “the crevices and corners become all the more darker.”

The problem fiction writers have, and historians do not, is that here there is no cave. The crevices and corners, while certainly dark, are written into the past from Drummond’s imagination. Fiction is wonderful; it transports us from the prosaic not only into rich-hued worlds, but into the thrust of meaningful narratives. Historical fiction produces these narratives by smoothing out past episodes that almost hang together. It abridges the pieces of men and women which we can find scattered in the records of the past that almost make believable characters. It can turn the past into a place we understand. But it cannot at the same time hold these men and women to account. A novel like The Sound, finally, has its own delicate cruelty. It traumatises with a vision of past savagery that lies maddeningly between truth and fiction.

-James Dunk

Reference list

Clendinnen, I. 2006, The history question: who owns the past?, Quarterly Essay 23, Black Inc., Melbourne.

Drummond, S. 2013, ‘Predator dreams,’ A winedark sea: ripping yarns, beautiful lies and a few home truths, weblog, 10 July, viewed 23 September 2016, <http://thawinedarksea.blogspot.com.au/2013/07/predator-dreams_10.html>.

Purchase Sarah Drummond’s The Sound from Fremantle Press here
Read a chapter from The Sound here


James Dunk is a historian and writer living in Sydney’s Inner West. He holds a PhD from the University of Sydney

New Shoots Poetry Prize banner 2

Funny, Insightful and Touching: Anna Forsyth Reviews ‘Fair Game’ by Carmel Bird

Fair Game by Carmel Bird. Finlay Lloyd press, 2015.

fair game 2This petit offering from Finlay Lloyd Press represents prolific author and essayist Carmel Bird’s first longer memoir piece, with the inclusion of her short story,  What World is This? from a ballet based on Carmel’s research on Tasmanian history.  This book is part of a set of five short works released together by Finlay Lloyd. Though the book itself is light enough, the contents carry the weight of an important historical subject: The Princess Royal girls, or the group of women sent on a fateful journey to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) to become the wives of the men sent to the penal colony. Carmel warns the reader that her account ‘…will waver, will veer off course…in service of the narrative itself.’ The book is written in a rambling style, but Carmel is an insightful tour guide of the subject. Because of its combination of memoir and historical essay forms, it is more of a woven tapestry that gives us a bigger picture, as opposed to a singular historical narrative.

Traditional histories of Tasmania have lent themselves to the masculine perspective; their heroes and villains being the convict and pioneer men, those battlers who forged a part of Australia’s history with grit and rippling muscles (if cinematic portrayals are correct). What these histories largely omit are the women who, through a variety of circumstances, found themselves bit players in this hyper-masculine world; their struggles and contributions reduced to marginalia in our textbooks (if that). This book then forms an important piece of the narrative puzzle. It could be that it warrants more than the 60 pages it was given. It is not a revisionist work, and not comprehensive by any means, but a simple snapshot of the lived experiences of pre-Tasmanian era women.

The title, Fair Game, comes from the lithograph on the cover, entitled, E-migration, or a Flight of Fair Game, by Alfred Ducote. At first glance, it’s a gentile portrait, in pastels of Georgian women flitting across the ocean, portrayed as delicate butterflies. One imagines a soft, gentle landing for these characters. But on closer inspection (Carmel with her magnifying glass), we see the true meaning of the satirical piece. The women depicted are the chosen few, sent by barque sailing ship (The Princess Royal) on a gruelling trip, we are told lasted just over four months. They are seen as property, with a tiny figure waiting for them reaching up with a net and exclaiming ‘I spies mine’. A woman wielding a broom is seen positioned on the opposite coast shooing the woman away as ‘Vermont’. This is indicative of the view of the particular women who were chosen to be part of this group. Not dissimilar to the men in that sense. Van Diemen’s seen as almost an offshore dump for those in society deemed less than respectable.

In terms of source material, it is interesting to note the audacity of Coultmann Smith in stamping his tome with ‘The whole story of the convicts’. His, Shadow over Tasmania was endorsed by the state premier in 1941 as a definitive and final word on the subject. Carmel notes in her cheeky way that it is a ‘creepy old paperback’ and bemoans the lack of substantial works to base her research on. An interesting aside is that a historical essay she wrote for a high school cultural exchange was rejected on the basis of its dark subject matter (i.e. Aborigines and convicts). Now Carmel can finally have her say, giving a voice to those who barely even register in the mythology. She doesn’t pull any punches politically either, stating, “I regard ‘settlement’ as a horrible euphemism, a choking smoke screen, language working to obscure the truth of the British invasion of the island, of the deliberate genocide of the local people…”. It’s a forthright statement and a sentiment shared by many.

The fact that it is part memoir softens what could be another dark and guilt-inducing look at a chapter in Australia’s history. If the array of history books were laid out as a buffet, don’t be fooled into thinking this is akin to a light and fluffy pavlova dessert. In some ways, it would have done it a greater service to package it in a more authoritative way. The choice of the comical lithograph almost mocks the women whose suffering Carmel touches on in the book. Knowing what we do now, those political cartoons of old veer into demeaning and offensive territory. It could just as well be for that reason that it was chosen. The gritty reality for these women is in stark contrast to this saccharine portrayal.

In her glamorous author shot on the back cover, Carmel smiles at us, her neck adorned with a frilly scarf. But don’t be put off by the traditionally feminine wrapping of this book. It is funny, insightful, touching and will hopefully open the door to more of the hidden stories of Australia’s past that have been swept under the carpet.

 – Anna Forsyth

Anna Forsyth is a writer and freelance editor, originally from NZ, now living in Melbourne. Her poems have appeared in FourW, Landfall and other journals. She is the convenor of the monthly female driven poetry event and refugee fundraiser, Girls on Key – https://www.facebook.com/girlsonkey/.

For details on how to purchase a copy of Fair Game go to http://finlaylloyd.com/fl-smalls/

“Is there such a thing as inner crookedness?” Susan Hawthorne reviews Nothing Sacred by Linda Weste

Nothing Sacred by Linda Weste. Australian Scholarly Publishing 2015.

Article Lead - narrow1001670720gn047cimage.related.articleLeadNarrow.353x0.gkda2o.png1456193987445.jpg-300x0

I was primed to read this book because I had recently finished reading Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. I also spent six months in Rome in 2013 on my own poetic journey.

The structure of this book is shaped by the history of the Roman Claudian family during the late Republican period. It follows the story of the siblings Clodius Pulcher and his sister Clodia Metelli.

Beginning with the funeral procession of their mother along the Via Appia, these two wild siblings begin their downhill journey; Clodia is forever pushing boundaries set for women of her class. She goes out alone. This allows the author to conjure up the atmosphere of Rome and how it would have felt walking as a woman alone.

Rome is a violent place, not only in the street but in the political fora too. Cicero is a major player in the politics of Rome. The first such political rumbling was the Catiline Conspiracy. There are wonderful poems here in which the reader gets a clear idea of how Cicero sounded.

You will learn why the traitor
Cat-i-line . . .
should go into voluntary ex-ile:

For conspi-ring to revolt.’

The use to which these hyphens are put helps the reader negotiate this multivocal book and immediately recognise Cicero’s speech patterns. But the book is more than that. It includes letters and dialogue, oratory, fantasies and an extraordinary depiction of the times.

It is also a universal story in some ways and the political rivalry not too far from what we see on our televisions, except that in Rome you were more likely to be killed or at best exiled by your opponents.

Cicero is not a happy man, indeed he feels cursed and unlucky and asks:
‘Is there such a thing as inner crookedness?’

He is left-handed and that is regarded as a bad omen.

Cicero is not the only one to be sharply drawn. At a party, Catullus muses when greeted by Lucius Valerius Flaccus:

‘Ah Catullus!’ altogether too familiar,
A fleck of pastry on his puffy bottom lip
Flutters with each burst of breath.

Clodia soon puts Catullus in his place, wondering if he can live up to expectations. The narrative arc of this verse novel is towards more and more danger for its protagonists. Watching, through poetry, the social order fall apart is a fascinating process.

Cicero goes into exile, Crassus is violently murdered, Clodius is killed and then given a state funeral, buildings are burnt to the ground, Milo is put on trial, and only Clodia lives through it all.

She is a survivor and says of herself:

I’ve no disguises.
A woman in my position cannot remain unknown
Strangers hold no title:

But because you set eyes on me
And called me names
You’re compelled to think of me:

Rich, beautiful and imperishable.
I rise before you.

Nothing Sacred is a powerful work of poetry. It helps to have some knowledge or interest in Rome, but the book includes notes and a list of characters for those of us who need reminders. Linda Weste has written a work that draws the reader into the maelstrom that was Rome. It is a less dignified place than we usually encounter in histories and the characters are real, almost contemporary in their impulses and inclinations.

 – Susan Hawthorne



Susan Hawthorne is the author of Lupa and Lamb (2014) written while on a Literature Residency in Rome in 2013. Her other poetry books include Cow (2011), Earth’s Breath (2009) and a verse novel, Limen (2013). She has been published widely in literary magazines around the world and several of her non-fiction books have been translated into Spanish, German, French and Arabic.


Nothing Sacred is available from the Australian Scholarly Publishing website here: http://www.scholarly.info/book/443/