- On a Barbarous Coast, by Craig Cormick and Harold Ludwick. Allen & Unwin. $29.99.
What if the HMS Endeavour, after setting sail for "Botanists Bay" in May 1770, was shipwrecked on a coral reef off what is now Queensland leaving behind only a handful of survivors, including a comatose Captain James Cook? It's an interesting thought. It's also the idea that drives the narrative in a stirring new book by Craig Cormick and Harold Ludwick, On A Barbarous Coast.
Of course, the real Endeavour did run aground on the Great Barrier Reef. And it did limp back to Batavia, its timbers "worn and aged", for a sorely needed refit before continuing its homeward journey. But don't let the "facts" fool you. While On A Barbarous Coast does tack pretty close to the lower-case truth, as the reading line on the cover spells out this is "A Novel", not a crackpot work of alternative history.
The story opens, unsurprisingly, on a dark and stormy night. "Rain and winds screamed at us. The white tops of the high sea leaped over the ship's side, like large watery hands trying to pluck us into the depths." It's 11pm and the Endeavour has just hit the reef, its "sharp rocks and corals splintering the wood with a jolt". One of the book's two narrators, a midshipman named Magra, hurries astern and hops into a little boat with a trio of "untrustworthy and ugly souls" to make his escape. The following morning, four become twenty-five when they discover another group of survivors, which includes Joseph Banks and the injured James Cook.
By dumb luck, the survivors managed to avoid landing on sacred land and so for most of the story they're left to their own scheming devices, observed from a distance by the Guugu Yimidhirr people. Predictably enough, whatever sense of harmony and shared purpose that existed among the survivors is soon shattered, with the marines taking off to build their own camp - complete with fortifications! - and the sailors and gentleman staying behind in their sad little camp by the river. Magra, as in James Mario Magra, the man assumed to have authored A Journal of a Voyage Around the World in His Majesty's Ship Endeavour, stays behind.
As far as first-person protagonists go, Magra is a reliably irritating one. An insufferable know-it-all who's only too happy to proffer an opinion, it would hardly be surprising to discover that he's a card-carrying member of the Colonial Chattering Class. His ceaseless internal sniping about the "lobcocks and idiots" whose company he's been forced to keep is never really, you know, verbalised. And his unwillingness to fully commit to one camp or another says as much about his head for strategy as it does about his apparent fecklessness.
The humble Garrgiil, by comparison, is much easier to take. Whereas Magra is a bona fide blowhard, Garrgiil is plainspoken, sometimes to the point of deadpan. The sections narrated by the young Aboriginal boy betray Ludwick's knowledge of country and are infused with rich cultural detail. They also feature about the only light relief to be found in the book. There's an amusing passage in which Garrgiil wonders how these newly arrived spirits make babies without women. Apparently they make them out of the dirt. "Gulgul said he was going very fast and then groaned like a ngamu ngajaar (dingo)." But the likeability or otherwise of the narrators isn't really the point here; their reliability is.
First-person narration can afford a novel the sort of intimacy that other modes of storytelling can never hope to achieve. There's something to be said for getting inside the head of a character, or characters as is the case here. But the "I" that we encounter with Magra, the garrulous midshipman, is not the one we find in traditional first person narratives but an altogether more "omniscient" one.
To put it another way, there are times when Magra says just a bit too much - "These are the things I should have perhaps written down" - and appears to know much more than he should. Is that a problem? Well, yes and no.
Ultimately, Magra's crime probably amounts to a lack of subtlety rather than a lack of credibility. So what if his "more is more" style of exposition brought about the occasional eye-roll in this reviewer?
The narrative drive at work here is far too compelling to be blown off course by a chatty midshipman. Besides, the "what if" posed by the authors is too important to be overshadowed by sterile arguments about novelistic conventions.
Two hundreds and fifty years after Cook's fateful first landing on this "barbarous coast", we're no closer to "closing the gap" that persists between indigenous and other Australians in terms of quality of life and a host of other factors. In fact, by many measures, from health to deaths in custody, we're going backwards.
If that's not enough to make you wonder "what if", and to fight tooth and nail for what should be, I'm not sure what is.