Demons in Van Diemens Land
Diabolical inheritance ... Christopher Koch explores the legacy of Tasmania's violent early history in Lost Voices.
Readers will find much to admire in Christopher Koch's generously paced new novel. The outer panels of this triptych depict scenes of everyday life in Hobart in the 1950s. The atmosphere of that tiny capital city, the southernmost in the world, is captured deftly, with a keen eye for telling details.
Hugh Dixon's childhood was spent in one of Hobart's neat, bland suburbs of small, mostly 1920s houses smelling of tidiness and furniture polish. In his early adult years he became familiar with Hobart's more sinister side: memories of the brutal convict days that still hung over the city. And there remained, too, hints of the life led by the colony's free settlers, who had tried to emulate how the landed gentry lived in the faraway place they and their descendants always thought of as home.
Dixon's father came from such a family, but a rift meant that the boy retained only fleeting memories of his father's people. Then, in his 18th year (the now ageing Hugh remembers), he took it on himself to heal that rift, asking his great-uncle Walter, Hobart's leading barrister, to help out Hugh's feckless father.
As Hugh made his way to his family's grand house on the outskirts of the city - once the centre of a prosperous farm - where Walter Dixon was living out the fantasies of his caste, Hugh remembered some stories about his great-grandfather, Martin Dixon, and a gentlemanly bushranger called Lucas Wilson.
The central part of Koch's novel is an account of the months in 1854 that Martin Dixon spent with the bushranger at the edge of the Tasmanian wilderness. Wilson - a mixture of Robin Hood and the Count of Monte Cristo - had established an ideal commonwealth (peopled by bushrangers and ticket-of-leave men) beyond the settled parts of what was still known as Van Diemens Land. He named the place Nowhere Valley, in homage to one of the punning implications of Sir Thomas More's Utopia.
The little community strove to be self-sufficient, certainly to keep the world outside at arm's length - except when the need for money and arms drove Wilson and Liam Dalton, a good-natured escapee from Port Arthur, to raid nearby farms and townships. Wilson's experiment ended in failure, of course, thanks to human frailty, indeed wickedness, with a shoot-out at an isolated farm in which Martin played a part.
These pages contain the finest writing in Lost Voices. Koch's evocation of the ever-changing patterns of colour and light in that rugged territory of deep valleys and distant mountain peaks is highly accomplished. His descriptions of life in Wilson's little utopia are equally distinguished, particularly in the ironic glimpses of the bushranger-sage, surrounded by the trappings of 19th-century bourgeois comfort, who spends his nights gazing at the stars from his eyrie in the wilderness.
The last section of the novel returns to Hugh and his life as a graphic artist for a Hobart newspaper. Here images of the former brutality of life in Van Diemens Land abound, especially when Hugh attends the murder trial of a childhood friend in the grim courtroom carved out of the chapel of the convict-era jail.
It is to Koch's credit that he does not labour the links between these two essentially separate narrative strands. However, they are there: in the resemblance between the pompously avuncular Wilson - who nevertheless had a vision splendid of what life could be like - and Hugh's great-uncle Walter, an Edwardian aesthete marooned beyond the edge of the civilised world as he sees it. And we notice how Martin Dixon's infatuation for Wilson's mistress, Frances, was echoed a century later by Hugh's affair with the war widow Moira Doran, his great-uncle's 34-year-old housekeeper.
One element in this novel could have been developed more elaborately. It has to do with the question of evil. Two characters, in particular, represent this fundamentally theological preoccupation. One is the escaped convict Roy Griffin, a cunning intriguer who fills Wilson's imagination with darkly gnostic lore. The other is the cartoonist, comic-strip artist and fashion photographer Max Fell.
Hugh regards this sinister creature with his peaked cap and blue-tinted glasses as a diabolic figure - which is precisely what he proves to be.
Griffin and Fell seem to inhabit a world sharply different from the largely commonplace lives Koch explores elsewhere in his novel. They endow Lost Voices with an essentially metaphysical dimension, reminiscent of the way in which Thomas Mann often mingled the everyday and the seemingly supernatural in his novels and stories.
Andrew Riemer is the Herald's chief book reviewer.