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Delicious descriptions: Gay Lynch on place, in colonial South Australia

October 24, 2020
Book cover

In my recent post on Gay Lynch’s historical fiction novel, Unsettled, I spent so much time writing about it, that I didn’t share any quotes as I usually do, so I’m using a Delicious Descriptions post to share just a couple of descriptions of the setting, which is around Gambierton/Mt Gambier in South Australia.

In one scene, Rosanna is looking for a lost child – a deft use by Lynch of the “lost child” motif common in colonial Australian literature – and comes across “a formidable rock-face … pigface flowers rioting across its surface.”

Her head spins when she finally looks down, searching the red rings like the contours of cut gum that encircle the unbroken walls of the crater. A wagtail aggravates a flock of swallows, resting on their tails and diving off, riding invisible currents over the startling void. Not a flutter of childish frilly clothing. Father Woods and Skelly have long conversations about the Pleistocene period when molten lava cooled forming the solid parts of the south-east landscape and great seas retreated, leaving behind corals and small crustacaens. Moorecke has told Rosanna Booandik stories about giant Craitbul’s cooking mound, for that is what she calls it.

In this little excerpt Lynch not only describes the physical landscape, but she conveys Western and Indigenous understandings of it. She doesn’t presume to tell Indigenous stories but she lets us know that other stories about the land exist. She also conveys here the relationship Father Julian Tenison-Woods (a real historical character) and Rosanna’s brother, Skelly, have concerning exploring and documenting the natural environment.

My second choice describes a ride Rosanna takes, with Moorecke, to the shipwrecked Admella (which many of you know was also featured in Jane Rawson’s 2017 novel From the wreck):

Moorecke directs Rosanna due west. Up to his girth in water, skirting sinkholes, Lucifer crosses deep bogs. They pass through long grasses, scrub and stands of black-wood. He takes logs in his stride with Moorecke jolting like a post office package, hands on his haunches, and Rosanna standing on the balls of her toes in the stirrups. They curve their backs against the stiff salt wind like crooked trees–like carratum, Moorecke says. A swamp harrier drops before them and screams as it rises, a scrabbling creature dangling from its talons.

White mist settles like a ration-blanket around their shoulders. They approach the sea, making their way with caution past sink-holes and through limestone-littered clearings. Sea heath and spear grass cling to the dunes. Lucifer begins to flag. Fingers stiff with cold, Rosanna lengthens his reins. The hollow roar of the sea reminds her that she has seen these limestone cliffs undercut by ferocious waves on a ride with Edwin. ‘I know this place. There is a spring.’

‘No stopping here.’ Moorecke lifts Rosanna’s hair to bellow in her ear. ‘Blackfellas’ caves’.

Once again the landscape is described, but Lynch imbues it with a disturbing sense to prepare us for the horror they are about to confront. Again, too, there is reference to Indigenous culture, and the implication that some places are sacred and should not be visited. In such ways do historical novelists show rather than didactically tell the things they want us to understand.

Any thoughts?

Gay Lynch, Unsettled, ligatu.re, 2019.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 24, 2020 17:31

    Only that I like your enthusiasm ..

  2. October 24, 2020 22:53

    “White mist settles like a ration-blanket around their shoulders.” That is indeed a striking metaphor.

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