Coincidentally, my first review after this week’s Monday Musings on historical fiction happens to be a work of historical fiction, Gay Lynch’s cleverly titled Unsettled. Consequently, I’m going to start there, that is, talking about the form.
Well, more or less, because I should at least give you a sense of its subject. It is set primarily in South Australia’s Gambierton (later Mt Gambier) from the 1859 to 1880, with most of the action taking place in the 1860s. It’s the story of an Irish family, the Lynches, who migrated to Australia in 1848. The Lynches, as you might have guessed from the author’s name, are based on her husband’s family. Unsettled explores their story primarily through two fictional characters, Rosanna and her younger brother Skelly.
… in the spirit of the story
Which brings me to the genre. In her Acknowledgements, Lynch provides some useful insights into the book. Firstly, regarding intention, she says that she specifically wanted “to materialise Lynch girls, absent from every family anecdote and official documents, church, state and school, apart from their birth documents … the girls’ lack of documentation and therefore their invisibility reflect their early settlement status on the frontier.” The challenge, of course, in “materialising” invisible characters from the past is to make them real, and avoid anachronism. This is difficult when records are few, but I think there are enough records of frontier women in general to validate Lynch’s conception here.
Lynch also addresses where she has changed Lynch family “facts”, such as their and their employers’ names. She also says that her two main characters, Rosanna and Skelly, “exist only in [her] imagination”, but “her lived experience as Lynch wife and mother, verifiable historical events, and historical Lynch antecedents” offered her “the connective tissue” needed for their fictional lives.
She goes on to say that “in the spirit of historical fiction” she has kept close to official records so that the characters drawn from life are as “true” as she can make them, but that “in the spirit of story, some events may not be verifiable”. That, of course, is historical fiction; it’s about fleshing out lives and times with story, where the facts are not known or are minimal.
Finally, she addresses her inclusion of the local Boandik people, an issue we often discuss here. She writes that they “tell their own South-East story – they still live on that once dangerous frontier, on land they never ceded – of their attempted eviction and genocide”. She says she “benefitted from knowledge shared by Boandik custodian Ken Jones”, conversed “with Boandik linguist linguist David Moon”, and was supported in addressing “important questions about voice and Indigenous historicity”. As I’ve said before, it’s really up to the Boandik people to say whether they agree with their representation, but Lynch has, it seems, done the right thing: she has included them in her narrative (in an appropriate way) and has conferred with the people she ought about doing so.
I’ve spent a bit of time on this I know, but it’s important with historical fiction to be very clear about what it is we are reading. I’m not an expert in South Australian settler history, but I feel Lynch has provided me with enough here, in addition to the knowledge I do have, to reassure me that her story is a valid one, so let’s get to that …
“now that the country is settled”
Nearly halfway through the novel, Rosanna converses with her employer, the hard, English station-owner, Mr Ashby. He is searching for some local Indigenous people who, he believes, have been “filching” from him. Rosanna, who has befriended the young local woman, Moorecke, tells him that Moorecke “belongs on this land”. She adds, hoping to throw him “off the scent”, that she rarely sees “Blacks, now that the the country is settled.”
Here, and throughout the novel, Lynch layers meanings in brief exchanges. Implied in this little scene, for example, are multiple power imbalances – between settlers and the original inhabitants, between the landowning English and the oppressed Irish, and between man and woman. And of course, overlaying this is the fraught idea of being “settled” and all its connotations, political and personal, physical and emotional. “Now that the country is settled” implies of course that it was “unsettled” before. This novel, with its title, “Unsettled”, keeps this foundational wound front and centre in our minds, which, dare I say, “unsettles” us.
This layering of meaning is one of the reasons I found the book an enjoyable read, because I enjoy such thoughtful, provocative writing, but the enjoyment here is compounded by the characters, particularly Rosanna and Skelly. Both are well individualised, with the novel’s third person perspective shifting mainly between them.
Over the course of the novel, Rosanna is our guide to what happens on the frontier. She works for the landowning Ashbys; she spends time with and learns from Moorecke of the Boandik people; she rides with the poet Adam Lindsay Gordon and confesses to Father Tenison Woods. She falls in love naively, makes many mistakes big and small, can be mean and tender, but she is a warm, courageous young woman who is determined to make her way authentically through a world which pays little attention to the dreams, let alone rights, of women. A world, in fact, in which “men are dangerous creatures if thwarted”.
Skelly, her sensitive and somewhat frail younger brother, is both foil and support to Rosanna. Their relationship contains the typical sibling tensions, but love and loyalty underpin it. It is what happens to Skelly at a school in Melbourne that propels Rosanna’s actions which provide the novel’s opening drama.
As is common in historical fiction, Lynch uses a family drama to drive the narrative forward and engage our emotions and interest. Lynch also imbues her story with references to both Australian and English literature of the times. For keen-reader Rosanna, Anthony Trollope’s Irish heroine Feemy Macdermot, from his first novel The Macdermots of Ballycloran, offers lessons to heed.
The main work that threads through the novel, however, is Edward Geoghegan’s play The Hibernian father, which was a popularly performed tragedy in mid- to late-nineteenth century Australia. It tells a tragic story of the Lynches of Galway, whence our own Lynches had come. The tragedy distresses our young Lynches, and threatens to destabilise them as they struggle to forge their lives without failing in the same catastrophic way. Rosanna’s father Garrick Lynch reassures his family that “it’s an ancient story … from bloody times”, but the irony is that “bloody times” are still with them.
In the end, all of this has one goal, to serve the real point of Lynch’s story, the complicated politics of settlement, oppression and dispossession, the injustices of colonialism. As Rosanna becomes aware, during an interaction with her employer Mrs Ashby, “living on the edge of civilisation unsettles everyone”. Gay Lynch’s book does the same – and that, I’m sure, was her intent.
Balmain: ligatu.re, 2019
(Review copy courtesy the author.)