‘How came I to a place like this?’
Gabriel Fox has travelled to Van Diemen’s Land on a quest. The novel opens with Gabriel in the company of a man he calls his Cannibal travelling from Hobart-town. Gabriel’s head is full of questions, such as:
‘… can the season truly be called winter, if it is at the wrong time of the year, and the leaves have not fallen?’
Gabriel and his Cannibal are travelling. Gabriel is hopeful of selling two harpoons he bought in Sydney-town at a whaling-station, north-east of Hobart-town. Once he gets rid of the harpoons, Gabriel wants to find the woman he has been despatched to find, and for whom he has a letter, and return to England. He has a letter of credit to use for his expenses.
The story unfolds slowly: we are in Gabriel’s head and that is the only perspective we will have. He has been tasked with finding Maryanne Maginn, who first set foot on Van Diemen’s Land some thirty years earlier. Why this is important and who has tasked him will gradually become known to us. But it is not Gabriel’s quest as much as his description of the land he is travelling through and the people he meets which held my attention initially. A day’s travel north-east of Hobart-town will take him to a whaling station on the east coast of Van Diemen’s Land. The whaling station is for sale. Sadly, the whales have already been hunted to near extinction.
Gabriel and his Cannibal arrive at the whaling station and take part in a whale hunt. Gabriel’s harpoons are used successfully. But a man dies, and Gabriel becomes part of a group which takes the body back to his widow in Hobart-town.
The descriptions in this novel are so vivid: I can picture the whale hunt (even if I don’t want to); I can see the poor horse Gabriel bought and which is subsequently stolen from him; I can feel his discomfort in his dirty, wet clothes. Gabriel has several different challenges to meet, before a somewhat surprising ending. Surprising, but strangely satisfying.
If you enjoy nineteenth century historical fiction set in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania since 1856) you may enjoy this as much as I did.