This novel moved me on a number of different levels. First, there’s the portrayal of life in colonial Van Diemen’s land (now Tasmania) when it was still a penal colony and when so much of the island had not been explored. Secondly, there’s the beauty and the harshness of the landscape itself. An unforgiving place for those not prepared. Thirdly, Ms Leary creates what (for me) is a three-dimensional interaction between people and place: I can see the characters, experience the setting, feel the environment.
‘Bridget stood on the boggy patch of ground looking up at the road.’
Van Diemen’s Land, 1826. Bridget Crack is a convict, transported for seven years for being in possession of counterfeit coins. Initially happy to reach dry land, Bridget does not settle to what is expected of her as an indentured domestic servant. Her first position, in the home of a British Army officer, is relatively comfortable but Bridget does not realise this. She is reassigned to another position and, warned about the master, behaves in a way which has her returned to the gaol. This time, Bridget’s hair is cut off as a punishment. When Bridget appears before the police magistrate, he orders that she be sent to the Interior.
‘She didn’t care: didn’t give a damn what they did to her. They could go to hell.’
Bridget is sent, miles from Hobart Town, to a hard life labouring for a cruel master. She decides to run away, to find the township of Jericho. But Bridget becomes lost.
‘At dawn she unfolded herself from the hole, stood shaky as a foal. The sky was a soft mewing grey, the air fat and ripe with the stink of life—the sharp perfume of plants, the heady sweetness of soil.’
She is saved from certain death by Matt Sheedy and his band of men. These men are bushrangers, desperate men, on the run from the law, with nothing but their lives to lose. They had tried to escape the colony by sea, and still hope to. In the meantime, they’ll take whatever they need from those they encounter along the way. Bridget’s presence creates tensions, but how can she escape when she doesn’t know where she is? The country is alien to her, full of danger. It doesn’t take long for the authorities to realise that Bridget is with the Sheedy gang, which leads to her inclusion on a proclamation by His Excellency Colonel George Arthur, Lieutenant Governor of the Island of Van Diemen’s Land and its Dependencies:
‘ … AND I DO HEREBY FURTHER PROCLAIM THAT any person who may apprehend Bridget Crack (5 ft. 3 in. light brown hair, green eyes, 21 years of age, arrived per Faith, native place Suffolk, absconded from Black Marsh, October 7, 1826) having absented herself from her usual place of residence and lately suspected to be in the company of the before named Offenders, will immediately receive from the Government the sum of Fifty Guineas, or (at their election) Fifty Acres of Land, free from all restrictions. And if the Offender shall be apprehended by prisoners, such prisoners shall receive a Free Pardon.’
Ms Leary has written an absorbing, atmospheric novel in which the landscape becomes central to Bridget’s story. There is no romance in this tale, just danger, difficulty, hardship and hunger. There can be no happy ending here, no escape for Bridget or her companions. Will it be the law, or the geography of the island which triumphs?
‘Above her the top of the escarpment was visible in the pitch-black—the rock in the night blacker than the sky. The river was running fast, chatty as a drunk priest.’
If you enjoy historical fiction set in 19th century colonial Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), if you enjoy beautifully written novels exploring the interactions between those who are desperate and the harsh environment surrounding them, I recommend this novel. It’s not an easy world to explore, but Ms Leary brings both characters and the environment to life: I could see the tea-coloured river, hear the Devils screeching, feel Bridget’s hunger and the leeches.
This is Ms Leary’s first novel: I hope there will be others.