‘A knife … is it true? Who’s got a knife?’
On 5 April 1841, the Rajah set sail from Woolwich, England en route for Van Diemen’s Land. She carried 180 female convicts. Kezia Hayter accompanied the women as matron, in charge of the prisoners and their ten children. The journey took fifteen weeks: the Rajah arrived at Hobart on 19 July 1841. During the journey, a number of the convict women made the Rajah Quilt, which is now held in the National Gallery of Australia.
Around these facts, Ms Adams has woven an historical thriller involving fictional convicts, including one who has stolen the identity of another to survive. In this novel, Kezia Hayter selects eighteen women to work with her on the quilt. The activity draws the women together and tentative friendships form. And then one of them is stabbed. Fatally. Who stabbed her, and why? Some of the women working on the quilt were on deck at the same time as the woman was stabbed, and it seems likely that one of them is guilty. The mood aboard the ship changes as the women become fearful for their safety. Kezia Hayter and the Captain want to find the truth, and an inquiry is launched.
Ms Adams brings the confined quarters of the ship to life: the cramped, uncomfortable conditions, the monotonous food, the seasickness. The chapters alternate between past (in which we learn more about some of the characters and how they came to be aboard the Rajah) and present. And the answer to the murder may come as a surprise.
Ms Adams chose to create fictional characters for the convict characters in her novel because some of the real women on the voyage have living descendants. Some of the others named (including Kezia Hayter) were aboard the Rajah.
‘A patchwork of souls.’
I have seen the Rajah Quilt on display at the National Gallery of Australia (it is not on permanent display because of its fragility). For those interested in more information about the making of the quilt, I can recommend this book: ‘Patchwork prisoners: the Rajah Quilt and the women who made it’ by Trudy Cowley and Dianne Snowden. This is one of the books included in Ms Adams’s Bibliography.
I enjoyed the novel.