In Sunshine or in Shadow by Martin Flanagan

A few days ago I read ‘A Crying in the Wind’, a novel set in Tasmania written by Elizabeth Fleetwood.  I started thinking about other books I have read in which Tasmania features, and was reminded of Martin Flanagan’s memoir ‘In Sunshine or in Shadow’, which I read back in 2015.  Here’s my review of that book.  And yes, I am still homesick for the island I’ve not lived on for over 40 years.
‘All my conscious life, I’ve been looking for those who were here before me.’

Tasmania has a long history.  While the European component is comparatively short, it is full of paradox and puzzle.  While this is Martin Flanagan’s memoir of his relationship with Tasmania, I can relate to a lot of it.  For much of the nineteenth and twentieth century, there were frequently gaps in personal histories, silences about ancestry and revisions of events.  How could so few of us have convict ancestry?  Was it true, as so many of us were taught during the 1960s and earlier, that there were no remaining indigenous Tasmanians?  Why did so many – who had never even seen England – refer to it as home?

Martin Flanagan is the fourth of six children, a Tasmanian of Irish descent.  His father was a teacher in rural Tasmania: in Longford in the northern midlands, and then at Rosebery, a mining town in Tasmania’s west.  These are very different parts of Tasmania, with very different stories.  Or are they?

‘Walking to school one morning behind the silent figure of my father, surrounded by dark mountains of thought, I first experienced the sense of absence that would mark me as surely as any belief in God. Years later, when I read towards the end of her life Truganini was accompanied by a feeling she called ‘big lonely one’, I wondered if the two absences, hers and mine, were somehow related.’

As Martin Flanagan explores his own family history, the history of European settlement in Tasmania and the impacts of that settlement on native species and on Indigenous Tasmanians, it becomes clear that this sense of absence is central.  Where is the truth about the Irish convicts, about Truganini ‘the so-called Last of Her Race’, about the thylacine (the Tasmanian tiger)?  A world and a history has been constructed where silence marks past existence with echoes (at least) in the present.

This is a book which combines biography and history, memoir, opinion and political issues in an exploration of the past and what going home means to Martin Flanagan.  And for others?  If you know nothing about Tasmania, this book will invite you to explore and consider Tasmania’s history.  For me, as an expatriate Tasmanian, it increased my longing to return, to learn more about my own family and about those we displaced.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith