Courtney Collins, The burial (Review)

Book cover (Courtesy: Allen & Unwin)

Book cover (Courtesy: Allen & Unwin)

I became aware of Courtney Collins’ The burial when it was longlisted for the Stella Prize. It has since been shortlisted for the Stella, shortlisted for the new writing award in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and longlisted for the Dobbie Literary Award for new writing. It had previously been shortlisted for the 2009 Australian/Vogel Award for Unpublished Manuscripts. This is one impressive debut. While I’m attracted to several of the books longlisted for the Stella, I particularly wanted to read this one because of its subject matter; it is inspired by the life of Jessie Hickman, an Australian woman bushranger. I hadn’t heard of her before and thought this would be an interesting introduction. I wasn’t wrong. The burial is no ordinary historical fiction.

The bulk of the novel takes place in 1921 when 27-year-old Jessie, having had a gutful of her abusive, horse rustling husband Fitz, takes off, having first … well, let’s just say, done to him what she’d been wanting to do for a long time. In other words, she’s on the run. Now Jessie is no saint. She’s already been in prison for rustling, but she didn’t deserve the treatment she got at the hands of Fitz. The novel chronicles Jessie’s escape, and the story of the two men looking for her, Jack Brown, her lover and co-horse rustler for Fitz, and Sergeant Barlow, who has a story of his own. Escape is, we discover, Jessie’s speciality. It’s not for nothing that the book starts with a story of Houdini, or that Jessie’s horse is named for him.

As I read, I was reminded of two American writers – Toni Morrison and her powerful, gut-wrenching novel Beloved, and Cormac McCarthy and his western novels – for pretty obvious reasons. The burial is narrated by Jessie’s prematurely born daughter whom she kills and buries at the start of the novel, reminiscent of Sethe’s daughter Beloved, despite their different behaviours. And the elemental, evocative language along with the themes – human against human, human against nature, in a forbidding and lawless environment – immediately bring Cormac McCarthy to mind.

What is particularly impressive about this debut is Collins’ handling of the narrative voice and structure. The baby’s voice is generous and wise, not maudlin or pathetic. She cares about this mother of hers, and is a bit like a guardian spirit, albeit one without any power. Somehow, despite what Jessie did to her, she humanises Jessie and encourages us to feel sympathy rather than horror. Collins is light-handed in her use of this trope. As the novel progresses, it feels like a third person story, which it is, really, because it is not about the narrator but is her story of her mother. Every now and then, though, we are reminded of our narrator when she says “my mother”.  As for the structure, the narrative alternates, loosely rather than rigorously, between Jessie’s story and that of Brown and Barlow. It’s basically chronological but there are flashbacks to fill us in on Jessie’s origins as we follow her escape.

Back now to the story. Early in the novel, Jessie is released from jail to be an apprentice horse-breaker and domestic help to Fitz, and pretty soon we are told all we need to know:

Her hope was that her employer was a good man. But he was not.

I love the way Collins’ language flows – from lyrical description to the plain and straight.

Fortunately, Jessie, while fearful of this man who beats her, is also spunky and “found freedom in the ways she defied him”. There is a bit of the picaresque in the novel, as we follow Jessie’s escape and the various people she meets, but it has none of the lightness of that form. A better description is probably gothic. It’s a tough world Jessie finds herself in – one that is particularly cruel to women and children. She spends time, for example, with an old couple. The woman wants her because “All of these years in this miserable place I have prayed for the company of someone other than you and here she is. I am taking her”. The man’s response?  “She’s of no value”!

The brightest spot in the novel occurs when Jessie meets a gang of young rustlers led by the 16-year-old Joe in a spirit of mutual support and cooperation. She joins them and helps them in a well-planned heist in which they manage to steal 100 cattle, sell them at saleyards and return to the hills before the owner notices the loss. It is remote country, after all. However, the theft is discovered and a bounty is put on Jessie’s head – for the cattle they believe she’s stolen and for the rumoured murder of Fitz. And so the final hunt begins involving a bunch of men who are after the bounty, and Brown and Barlow who hope to get to her first.

For a while the gang stays hidden but, eventually, some of the hunters get close:

That’s the sound of desperate men, said Joe. I know this type of man, said Bill. He has no god. And he is all the more dangerous to us because, worse than that, he has no law in him or myth to live by.

Jessie, at her insistence, heads off alone, setting up the climax which is not totally unpredictable – after all, one can’t stay on the run forever – but which contains its surprises.

This is a novel about a hard world in which

A man can rape or kill and expect no consequence except his own consequence. You mean conscience? Consequence is what I said and what I mean to say!

But it is also about love and forgiveness, magic and myth, resilience and resourcefulness … I’ll not forget it quickly.

Courtney Collins
The burial
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2012
ISBN: 9781743311875 (Kindle ed.)

Read for Australian Women Writers’ Challenge and Reading Matters’ Australian Literature Month.

Yan Lianke, Dream of Ding village (Review for Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize, 2011)

Yan Lianke's Dream of Ding Village

Bookcover courtesy Grove / Atlantic Inc.

As I started reading Yan Lianke‘s Dream of Ding Village, I was reminded of a favourite novel of mine, Albert CamusThe plague. However, as I read on, the similarity started to fade – or, perhaps it’s just that the particularity of Lianke’s conception took over. Both books explore a community living with a highly contagious, deadly disease, and both can be “read” through the lens of a wider political interpretation, but the two stories are told differently. For a start, Camus does not make his political “reading” literal while Lianke closely intertwines the political with the personal in his novel. No wonder this novel was published in Hong Kong and banned in China!

The story was inspired by the fallout that occurred from Henan Province‘s plasma economy, 1991-1995, in which Chinese were encouraged to sell their blood plasma. According to the Wikipedia article, it is estimated that over 40% of the blood donors (sellers) contracted AIDS, due to the low health and safety standards applied to the campaign. It’s a tragic story and Lianke uses it to tell a cautionary tale about a rush to progress that seems to cast humanity to the winds.

So, how does he tell it? The story is narrated by the dead son of “blood kingpin” Ding Hui. Qiang was poisoned in an act of revenge for his father’s role in bringing “the fever” (HIV/AIDS) to Ding Village. In the clear, non-judgemental voice of a child, Qiang proceeds to chronicle events in the village as the disease takes hold, using occasional flashbacks to fill in the gaps. His is not a schmaltzy or sentimental voice. It’s simply the voice of an omnipotent narrator who happens to have also been part of the story, before the novel starts, and whose “existence” initiates its dramatic denouement. It’s an interesting device that nicely balances involvement with distance. We get close, but not too close, to the people and events.

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

The novel is told in 8 Volumes, and progresses chronologically from the appearance of the fever to when its impact on Ding Village is complete. Qiang tells his story primarily through the actions and behaviour of his grandfather, a man who hangs onto his ethics throughout the crisis while trying, mostly against his better judgement, to remain loyal to his two self-centred sons. A difficult task for the hard-working man entrusted with caring for the school and being its teacher when qualified teachers couldn’t be found. While Grandpa does his best to support the villagers in their darkest time, his oldest son Ding Hui engages in scam after scam (such as selling the government’s “free” coffins and organising “marriages” between dead people) to feather his own nest and further climb the greasy pole of bureaucracy.

Along the way, the stories of other villages are told, such as that of the adulterous couple Ding Liang and Lingling who, having uninfected spouses, decide to find affection in each other’s arms. It’s hard to feel they deserved the disapprobation they received (from most, though not all, in the village), but, speaking novelistically, they usefully represent the breakdown in normal codes of behaviour. Early in the novel, there is a respite from the horror when Grandpa invites all infected villagers to live at the school – and for a while a real community develops among the sick and dying. It doesn’t last of course and, as in The plague, bad things start to happen as the villagers respond to their disastrous situation. Graves are robbed, buildings ransacked, and, in a terrible scenario, the village is denuded of all its trees by villagers needing to make coffins. Black humour is never too far from the tone, and this tree-felling scene provides a perfect example.

It’s all powerful stuff and is conveyed through strong writing that uses physical description to underscore the devastation occurring in the village. I particularly liked the paradoxical use of the sun, gold and yellow throughout the novel to convey on one hand, warmth, prosperity and harmony, and on the other drought, desiccation and oppression, with the latter becoming precedent as “the fever” and associated corruption take hold:

Translucent, pale yellow and green leaves shimmered in the sunlight like golden offerings.


… leaving Grandpa standing in the middle of the road, beneath the blazing sunshine, like a small clay figure of a man that someone had left to dry in the sun. Like an old wooden hitching post bleached by the rotting wood that no one wanted any more.

Other colours also pervade the book such as blood-red suns and green leaves and grass, continuing the disconnect between life and death that characterises Ding Village in the throes of “the fever”.

There’s something about the form though that puzzled me and that’s the use of italics. Sometimes they are used for Grandpa’s dreams – dreams that are often prescient, occasionally surreal – and sometimes they are used for flashbacks. But sometimes I couldn’t quite work out the reason, other than that they were possibly for ideas or events slightly out of kilter with the narrative point at which they occur. I’m not sure that the differentiation, except perhaps to delineate Grandpa’s dreams, serves the novel well.

This is a minor quibble though in a book that explores how greed leads to skewed values (“I spent my whole life doing philanthropy” says the serial scammer Ding Hui) and provides an opening for political corruption. Fast economic progress, Lianke seems to be saying, cannot be simply or easily pasted over cultural traditions that have taken centuries to build … but his vision is not, I think, completely hopeless. “A cool breeze”, he writes near the end, “carried the mingled scents of rotting plants and newly sprouted grass across the plain”. Let’s hope that “newly sprouted grass” gets the upper hand.

For reviews by other members of the Shadow Man Asian Prize jury, please click on my Man Asian page.

Yan Lianke
Dream of Ding Village
(trans. by Cindy Carter)
New York: Grove Press, 2009 (2005, orig. Chinese ed.)
ISBN: 9780802145727