Affection by Ian Townsend

‘Affection: (archaic) the action or process of affecting or being affected.’

For many of us, the bubonic plague was something that happened in the distant past, but it still occurs. It is caused by a bacillus Yersinia pestis, carried by infected fleas or animals such as rodents. These days, because we know how it is transmitted and have access to effective antibiotic treatment, bubonic plague is not as deadly as it once was. But effective management and treatment is essential, and much easier now than it was in 1900.

‘This novel is based on a true story, but it is fiction.’

In January 1900, an outbreak of plague is suspected in Townsville, Queensland. Dr Alfred Jeffris Turner is sent by the Queensland Government in Brisbane to join his colleague Dr Linford Row. Dr Turner, an amateur lepidopterist, arrives armed with a microscope and his butterfly net. Both doctors meet with a hostile reception: local councillors insist that the outbreak is ‘only’ typhoid. Fifty-two possible plague carriers including two MPs aboard the SS Cintra, are isolated on a quarantine station on Magnetic Island. They are not happy. And in Townsville itself, attempts to establish a quarantine station north of Townsville, near Three-Mile Creek, were resisted for a while.

Dr Row lives with his own tragedy: a young daughter who died of a respiratory illness. He throws himself into work to avoid his feelings of sadness and guilt. When he delivers a letter from one of the patients aboard the SS Cintra to the man’s wife, he becomes caught up with more of the people affected by plague.

This novel was published in 2005 but reading it in 2021 it is easy to see some parallels with the current COVID-19 pandemic. Economic interests in Townsville in 1990 had an impact on the speed with which the health crisis was treated. Some of those who lost loved ones to the plague were devastated thar those who died had to be buried in the plague cemetery without family members being able to attend. Fear and rumour spread faster than fact.

Do we ever learn?

I recognise some of the areas of Townsville and Magnetic Island referred to in the novel. I can imagine how challenging it would have been to try to deal with plague cases during the oppressive heat of the tropical summer.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith