- The Wreck, by Meg Keneally. Echo. $29.99.
In 1819 in Manchester, a group of local yeomanry and mounted cavalry charged a crowd gathered to hear a speaker urging government reform. The following year in London, a small group of men were convicted for conspiring to kill the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool. The central character in this book, Sarah McCaffrey, lost her parents in the first of those events and her brother to the hangman as a result of the second.
Sarah managed to find a berth on a convict transport to New South Wales, where the second half of Meg Keneally's book is set. As a piece of historical fiction it is a triumph, the kind that will have the reader wanting to research what England was really like when Keats and Shelley were changing poetry, when Scott was writing his novels and the gentle Faraday was bringing light out of darkness.
The book gives a feel for the way that the Corn Laws, designed to favour domestic producers, affected ordinary citizens, pushing many of them into starvation in a way that would be repeated more dramatically in Ireland thirty years later. It also gives a feel for how the new colony around Botany Bay was organised; the reader will be left to marvel that a place so mired in corruption and structured inequality could survive to become a modern democracy.
Sarah is ahead of her time in her reaction to a world where women had neither vote nor voice, even in England, the most progressive country in the world. They had even less importance in a colony where they were often seen as little more than temptation or opportunity. That some women might lead fulfilled lives could happen only through birth into wealth or through luck into marriage. Mrs Thistle, one of the characters in the story, fits in the latter category and is loosely based on Mary Reibey, whose face today is found on the Australian $20 note.
Sarah is befriended by Mrs Thistle and proves to be a quick learner, so that by the time the story ends, she has found contentment and happiness. This is the only brightness in a story that is unremittingly grim. That is intended as compliment, not criticism. If you set your story in the first third of the 19th century, writing like this is closer to the lives of ordinary people than you will find in writers of that time like Jane Austen or the Brontes. It is in no way preachy or didactic, the author happy to present the situations as they occurred and allow the reader to make their own assessment.
Beautifully written, this is an intelligent book that takes the reader through a period in English and Australian history that has rarely been so truthfully described. When they say, "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree", they could have Meg Keneally in mind.