The ‘Monsarrat series’ comprises three books (at time of this post):
The Soldier’s Curse, The Unmourned, The Power Game
No surprise that I was drawn to this series – they are, to date, three novels of historical fiction, set in several different locations in convict era Australia. Another draw card was the fact that they were co-written. I’ve always been a little fascinated by how the co-authoring process works, and this is an intriguing father and daughter team: well loved Australian author Tom Keneally and his daughter Meg. If I had the chance, I’d love to sit down with the authors and find out more. Who writes which bits? Which of them comes up with the initial ideas? Do they meet physically to discuss, plan and plot their stories, or is it an online or Skype process?
The stories centre around Hugh Monsarrat, who we first meet at Port Macquarie penal colony in NSW, while he is serving out his sentence for fraud, in the early part of nineteenth century NSW. Hugh is an educated man whose intelligence and aspirations outstripped his means, tempting him to pass himself off as a lawyer in England. His deception is discovered and he is shipped off to NSW on a convict transport.
The books take the form of classic “whodunnits”, as for one reason or another, Hugh is tasked with solving murders that occur where he happens to be: Port Macquarie in book one, the Parramatta Female Factory in book two, and Maria Island (off Tasmania’s coast) in book three. There are plenty of opportunities for guesswork by the reader, with red herrings planted throughout, and various characters having their own reasons to commit a murder.
A truly delightful character who appears in each book is Mrs Mulroony, a forthright Irish woman who has already served her sentence and becomes Hugh’s offsider. Mrs Mulroony is a woman of many talents, including skillful tea making and shortbread baking, to which she adds a fierce intelligence and the ability to accurately read people and situations – usually much more astutely than Hugh himself.
The books have a droll humorous tone, with believable characters and intriguing story lines. What I also enjoyed is their examination of the social, economic and political forces at play in colonial times, and the way in which these impact on the various characters.
If you are looking for well written historical fiction set in early Australia, peopled by characters you can fall in love with, you won’t be disappointed in these stories.I read that the books have been optioned for a TV series and very much hope that will eventuate.
Here is another of the short stories I entered in the Australian Writers Centre ‘Furious Fiction’ short story competition. For this one, the guidelines were: 500 words or less, the topic was “The Lost Hour”, and the story had to include one sentence with three colours mentioned, plus the phrase “It is lighter.”
As always with this competition, it was great practice for thinking imaginatively about a prompt and writing to some guidelines – and good fun. Here is my story:
The Lost Hour by Denise Newton
Splinters of light stab at my eyes. I try to open them. The right eye opens. Can’t see much, but it must be nearly morning. Darkness lifting: it is lighter. My left eye stays closed. I try again, concentrating. Jesus, it’s stuck. What the freaking hell? My mouth is stuck – I can’t open it, either. My tongue feels huge, like a thick furry lizard inside my mouth. I try to lift my head. Someone groans nearby. So close to me. Who is that? I try to lift my head again. Shit, it hurts. I hurt. That dude groans some more. Carefully, I roll my head to the right and open that eye a crack. I can’t see properly. Pieces of something green and shiny scattered about. Glass? Roll my head back to the left. Another moan. There’s no one there. Is it me making those noises? What the hell?
OK, try to sit up, Luke. Slowly, slowly, like an old man, I roll to one side and push myself up to sit, hunched over like a turtle. My left eye is screaming now, throbbing. God, my head. There’s a piece of broken green glass embedded in my left palm. Blood oozes around the sides of the wound. Looks deep – but what do I know? I can hardly see properly. I try to focus my one good eye on the wound, staring hard. It’s all blurry: a pink, green and red palm. I can feel it now. Maybe because I’m looking at it. Stinging, where the blood is leaking. I turn my hand over. The knuckles look grazed and swollen. Like something hard has hit them. Or… like they’ve hit something hard.
Jesus. I’m scared now. What happened here? I search my mushy brain, trying to remember. Flashes of the night before: Jason’s big party, his buck’s night at The Royal. All the guys there, I remember that. A big night. Huge. Then nothing. Jump to now. Sitting here with a triangle of green glass in my palm, a swollen eye and knuckles that have seen some action. The rest of the night lost to me.
I try to stand up. Sit down again, in a hurry as the concrete under my feet rises, threatens to slam into me. My head drops between my knees. I’m trying to think the nausea down; I want to look up but the bile rises. So I lean one ear on my knee and send my gaze out. To my right, on the other side of the broken glass, something lies crumpled on the pavement. Oh. Jesus. A body, lying there, very still. Concentrating, commanding my right eye to focus, I make out a pale green t shirt and jeans, a bearded face turned to me, eyes closed. The top of the shirt is splotched with stains. A dark red trail of liquid oozes from the ear above.In the distance I hear a siren.
I’ve been joining Facebook groups over the past few months. Not social ones – though I have several of those in my profile as well. No, these are groups that help me with getting into information, photos, old maps, and other images relevant to my genre and areas of writing interest. I’ve been amazed at the plethora of interest groups and the energy of their members to learn, discover, and share. There are some treasures to be found in the posts.
So I thought I’d share some that I’m finding especially useful. You can search for the group title in Facebook, and some require you to request to join the group, which is easy and painless.
These are ones relevant to my area of Australian colonial and convict history:
Pioneer, Convicts Families Research Group
Third Fleet 1791 Researchers
Second Fleet 1790 Researchers
(I’m sure there is a First Fleet Researchers group as well, though this is not relevant to my research right now)
Vintage Sydney (Australia) Heritage History & Memories
Australian Family History – Online Records and Resources
The Convict Stockade
Parramatta Female Factory Friends
Historical Novel Society (Australasia)
Hawkesbury Pioneer Families
Richmond History Group NSW
If these represent areas of interest or research to you, check them out. Let me know what you find in the comments below.
I could not resist this one: I saw the explanation of the expression ’slapstick’ (as in ‘slapstick comedy’ or ‘slapstick humour’) on a British TV doco on Regency English towns. The Cheltenham Theatre in this era was known for its pantomime productions, in particular those featuring the character Harlequin who originated in Italian comedy theatre. He is recognisable in his diamond chequered costume and magic sword, which he used to create new scenes, conjure a particular atmosphere on stage, or perform tricks.
In the documentary, the theatre historian showed the way the ‘magic sword’ was often made from two long pieces of wood, joined together at one end but loose on the other. When slapped against a leg, the wood made a sharp slapping sound, loud enough to be heard by audience members, and was the signal for the lights to dim, or a new prop or action to appear – hence the ‘magic’, but also how we get the term ‘slapstick’.
This novel of contemporary fiction was published in the same year in which its author died – far too young. I had not read any of Georgia Blain’s work before getting hold of this book, which I did on a friend’s recommendation. Jennie had said to me that it was a work of great beauty, and she was right.
The novel centres around one family: Ester and her two young daughters, her estranged husband Lawrence, Ester’s sister April (also estranged), and their mother Hilary. Most of the action takes place over one especially rainy Sydney day, although flashbacks help to fill in details, including the reasons for the difficulties in the relationships of Ester and her husband, and Ester and her sister.
It’s a quiet, perceptive novel that had me thinking of the stupid things that we all do and say, especially in our younger years. Actions and words that can hurt and damage, and which often come back to haunt us when we have come to our senses. The members of this family are not bad people: they are flawed in ways many would recognise, trying to come to terms with life’s disappointments and surprises.
I enjoyed this gentle yet thought-provoking novel very much. How sad I was to learn of Blain’s death.
For me, reading (and now writing) historical fiction is a portal into the past. Good fiction has the ability to bring a time and place alive in a way that reading history texts can’t, with some notable exceptions. I’ve always been a history tragic, though not of the ‘dates, battles and great men’ variety. I’m much more interested in the lives of people: where they lived, what they ate, wore, read; who and why they loved; how they worked, travelled…
I’ve probably learnt more about history through my fiction reading, because I usually find myself looking up certain times and places to see ‘if that really happened then’. Of course that’s so much easier now, with the tools available on the internet.
I love finding out the history of places I go to. Walking down a street named after a figure from the past, or visiting an historical site, is always more interesting to me if I know the background beforehand. I love the fact that we are, all of us, walking over and around our history every day – even if we are not aware of it much of the time.
I went to a screening of ‘Ladies in Black’ recently: it was a fundraising event for a local community group. Having seen the stage play musical last year, I thought the screen version a little lighter than the play, which I found had a few more pointed comments about the sexism and xenophobia of 1950’s Australia. However, for a light-hearted dip into our social history, the film does a terrific job. Great performances by Noni Hazelhurst, Shane Jacobson, Susie Porter and Julia Ormond, as well as the younger cast members. The real star, of course, is Sydney in the late 1950’s – the trams, the department stores, the fashions and hairstyles.
I haven’t read the book so I can’t comment on how well the movie adapts the original story by Madelaine St John.
If you have read the book, I’d love to know your opinion of the adaptation. Does the film do the original story justice?
ZAHRA by Denise Newton
“Ma’am, would you please step to one side?” The official was polite but firm. There was no option: Zahra obeyed his directive. She adjusted her headscarf with her free hand. It trembled a little. She tried to hide the hand under a fold in her long jacket. Everything about her – her clothes and her spirit -had become a little creased on the flight from Kabul. She was very tired.
The official led her behind the bustling immigration area to an interview room. It was quiet inside. Zahra saw four chairs and a desk. There was a large round clock above the desk. The other walls were all white: blank white walls. Another official, dressed in the same uniform as the first, sat on one of the chairs. She indicated that Zahra should sit on the chair facing her. Zahra did so, slipping her hands – both of them shaking now – inside her sleeves. She would not show these people her fear.
The second official had Zahra’s passport. She leafed through the pages, glancing up once or twice. After several long moments she said, “What is the purpose of your visit to Australia?”
Zahra replied, carefully as she’d rehearsed “To visit my son. He is very sick.”
“And where does he live?”
“He lives in an apartment in Bankstown.”
“How long do you plan to stay?”
“Just one month.” Zahra’s mouth was dry. It was hard to pronounce the English words properly. She must say everything properly. For Hanif’s sake. For her son.
“Is your son an Australian citizen?” It was the man this time. He’d come to sit near Zahra. He was too close to her. His knee was touching her thigh. She tried to move back a little in her chair. She wanted to spring to her feet, to run outside and away from these people in the uniforms. But that would mean she would not see Hanif. She had to see Hanif. So she breathed out slowly and answered the man: “No, he is not citizen. He has temporary visa.”
“How can we be sure that you will return to Afghanistan at the end of the month? That you won’t try to stay here?” The man was frowning at her now. He frightened her. Did he mean to be frightening? Zahra didn’t know.
“I leave in one month. I see my son, then I leave. I want to nurse my son. He may die…he is sick. Very sick.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs.Asadi.” The woman stood up .”We cannot verify your visa documentation. We cannot allow you to enter Australia until this is done. You will need to stay in a detention centre until we have checked your credentials.”
The man took her arm to lead her from the room. Zahra turned her head to look at his face, searching for some understanding or compassion. The man had stopped frowning. His face was blank: it was empty.
As I work on re-drafting and editing my first draft, I am more conscious of the fear evoked by the thought of eventually putting my work out into the world. I know it’s common to writers, artists and others who work in creative pursuits. I suppose because when we write, compose music, or paint, we put a fair chunk of ourselves into whatever we are creating. It’s natural to be tentative about inviting a response from others.
In response to that fear, I’m working on making my story the best it can be. And when I’m satisfied I’ve taken it as far as I can on my own,that’s when I’ll invite others to read my work and give me feedback and suggestions. Yikes!
In the meantime, I can take baby steps in other ways. Submitting short stories to competitions, for example. Reading little pieces at a writer’s group meeting. Posting blogs. It’s all part of the process of putting my writing (and therefore myself) out there. Small steps. One at a time, each building on the ones before.
I’m so excited about the magic date of 29th October .. it’s when the online version of the ‘Write Your Novel’ program with the Australian Writers Centre begins. I’ve signed up and I can’t wait to start!
My motivation is that I have a first draft of a first novel that needs work…and since completing that first draft, I’ve been feeling a little at sea with how to approach what needs doing. This program, suitable for those with a chunk of a first draft or a completed one, will be invaluable for me. To go step by step through a manuscript, working out structural issues, plot development, pacing, character and dialogue; with help from an experienced editor tutor and a group of classmates all doing the same thing – wow.
Here’s the link to the Australian Writers Centre website about the course if it is something that might interest you: