Although I am an ardent fan of Tom Keneally’s writing – and the man himself who is rightfully one of our national living treasures – I admit to wariness when approaching his latest book which he has written in collaboration with his oldest daughter Meg. Due to a combination of bad history teachers and my working for several years in an archives where the only researchers I met were on never-ending quests for convicts in their family trees there are few subjects more likely to send me to sleep than Australia’s convict era. I ought to have had more faith: THE SOLDIER’S CURSE successfully weaves literary, historical and crime fiction together in a very engaging package.
The story’s action takes place in the penal settlement of Port Macquarie in 1825 which, at the time, was some days sailing north of Sydney and was about as remote as it got in a country that was already a bloody long way from anywhere else. A suitable site then for the prisoner’s prison; the place where those criminals who had been transported to Australia and had subsequently transgressed for a second time were confined. The authors have done a superb job of depicting this time and place, eschewing some of the more familiar (and wearying) convict lore such as our collective desire to believe that the only people transported here were those who’d stolen stale bread to feed their starving families. Instead most people display a mixture of good and bad traits but generally try to do the ‘right’ thing, even if their definitions of the word differ. The isolation of the place itself and the fact so much of it is unexplored and unknown is also brought vividly to life and the settlement’s interactions with the Birpai, the Aboriginal group native to the area, are sensitively incorporated.
Hugh Monsarrat is one of the prisoners though his circumstances are not as dire as they might have been. Due to his penmanship and writing skills Monsarrat works as the clerk to Major Shelborne who runs the settlement and has some leeway in how he spends his time if not the full freedom he yearns for. His characterisation is a fascinating one as we learn that what has been his undoing is, at heart, his ego and his unwillingness to accept the limitations his world tried to impose on him. Even being transported to the ends of the earth doesn’t engender in him the capacity to be as prudent as his situation demands. It’s a wholly realistic depiction and doesn’t gloss over the fact that Hugh is a criminal by his society’s definition and he really has no one to blame but himself for his predicament.
Hugh becomes a kind of amateur sleuth when the Major’s wife falls gravely ill before dying and his friend and confidante Hannah Mulrooney, the Shelborne’s housekeeper, comes under suspicion. As is sometimes the way with historical crime fiction the mysterious elements of the story do take a back seat. There is certainly a crime but there’s not a lengthy suspense over who committed it so I suppose I ought not recommend this to die-hard whodunit purists. Though I think most others would enjoy the way this story doesn’t end when the culprit has been revealed which gives the authors time to explore what happens to the criminal after they have carried out their plan. There mixture of pride and fear and regret the culprit displays seems very credible and I found it totally compelling. I may even have shed a tear or two for the killer which is something of a feat given it was a truly heinous crime.
I’m always fascinated by joint writing projects so was interested to hear (via this Radio National interview) that the Keneallys had originally planned to write alternating chapters based on Tom Keneally’s initial outline but that they ended up with Meg doing the initial drafting with lots of input from her father. It certainly doesn’t feel in any way disjointed, as perhaps it might have done if the original plan was followed. Although she has been a journalist I don’t think Meg Keneally has written fiction before so it’s difficult to know how much of the story’s voice is hers, whereas it does seem like Tom Keneally’s voice is present. Some of the themes common to his other work, including the role of Catholicism in Australian society (Keneally trained to be a Catholic priest though left the seminary before being ordained) and the tensions between classes or social stratas, are certainly present.
Apparently there is at least one more book featuring Hugh Monsarrat and Hannah Mulrooney coming our way and I must say I can’t wait. Engaging characters, fascinating period details and the thoughtful exploration of sociopolitical themes is more than enough to have me coming back for more.
Given it was written by a male/female pair I’m counting this as half a book towards my obligations for reading and reviewing books for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge, bringing my total so far to 11.5. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.
Publisher: Random House 
Length: 369 pages