• Books and reading

    Lives of crime: ‘Sanctuary’ by Gary Disher

    Gary Disher writes the kind of crime stories I like best: ones that focus on the people more than the crimes. He manages to show the how and why of the crimes committed, sure; but also the impact on both perpetrators and victims. This is meaningful fiction, not showcasing crime for its own sake, but to say something about humans and why they do the things they do.

    Sanctuary is unusual for this genre in that the workings of the world of law enforcement are of minimal importance to the narrative. It centres on several people whose stories overlap, though for much of the book we don’t necessarily know how or why.

    There is Grace, formerly known as Anita, who grew up in an unlovely and unloving foster home, along with Adam. They become a team involved in petty crime, just the two of them against a hostile world, until Anita meets a man who teaches her the tricks of a higher level criminal life. When she decides she has had enough of this man’s cruelty and control, she becomes Grace and continues her life of crime alone.

    But Adam harbours a grudge and when they inadvertently cross paths on a ‘job’, she runs again, fearful of what he might do.

    So begins a series of intricate and well planned moves; staying several steps ahead, constantly checking on surrounds and on people, distrusting of others, always looking for an escape, adopting a series of disguises.

    Disher vividly conjures the loneliness and insecurity of this life, and we feel some sympathy for Grace as she tries to adopt another way of being, the kind of ‘legitimate’ and ordinary life that she now longs for. It takes enormous mental and physical energy to live like this. I was reminded of Maxwell Smart in the 1960’s cold-war spoof series Get Smart, in which he often says of the ‘baddies’: If only they could use their cleverness for niceness instead of nastiness.

    Through the viewpoint of another character we are given insight into the mind of someone who indulges in digital stalking and illegal surveillance of people. It’s an unpleasant place and I was always relieved to move onto another scene, away from this sordid and rage-filled character’s world view. But I am very aware that sadly, technology has provided increased opportunities for people like this to frighten and hurt others.

    The tension mounts as the trajectories of Grace, Adam and other characters head towards collision, with complications cleverly woven in.

    The resolution does not tie everything up in a neat bow; that would be unrealistic and too tidy. But we are left with a hope that perhaps, at some future time, Grace and Adam can find a more satisfying way of being in their world.

    Sanctuary is published by Text Publishing in April 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers and to NetGalley for an early review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Book bonanza: Five new picture books for littlies

    I’ve had these newly published picture books on my desk for a little while, waiting for the opportunity to read through them and put my thoughts in a post. Finally I got to them and as always, it was an absolute pleasure to see such beautiful work created for our littlest readers.

    In no particular order, here they are:

    Little Book Baby by Katrina Germein and Cheryl Orsini is all about the fun of books, from waking to a cuddle and book with mum, books in the car and on a picnic, book and playtime on the rug, squeaky book at bath time, and a goodnight book with dad. The scenes pretty much sum up any book lover’s ideal childhood, and show how sharing books together can add so much to family or play time.
    Published January 2024.

    As Bright as a Rainbow by Romy Ash and Blue Jaryn explores the idea of gender, and how individuals can express their gender in a multiplicity of ways. It might seem like a hard concept for very young children, but let’s not forget that by the age of two or three most children have been socialised in being a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ in the ways sanctioned by their own culture. This book offers the view that rather than being an ‘either/or’ proposition, gender is more like a circle: we can be anywhere in that circle. Offering examples from the world of nature, where there are many different shades of colours like blue or green, it’s a gentle way to introduce the idea that each person can ‘just be yourself.’
    Published January 2024.

    Mimi and Buwaarr, Mother and Baby is another offering by Melissa Greenwood, a taste of Gumbaynggir culture and language. A mother (mimi) shows her baby (Buwaarr) the wonders and beauty of the world around them, especially their totem, the ocean (Gaagal) which heals and cleanses the spirit. The sun, the moon and the land offer wisdom to help a little one move into the world with love. The illustrations by the author are absolutely gorgeous, little works of art in themselves.
    Published March 2024

    My Dream for You by Ash Barty with Jasmin McGaughey and Jade Goodwin. Most Australians celebrated the news when tennis champion and all-round star Ash Barty had her first baby. This book celebrates the special bond between mum and baby and the hopes and wishes a new mother holds in her heart for her child. The illustrations by Jade Goodwin are sweet and soft.
    Published March 2024

    How to be Invisible, another in the Bunny and Bird series by Nick Bland, continues the friends’ story. This time Bunny is wearing a hat that he thinks will make him invisible. Bird has to do a lot of convincing to make Bunny see that he’s not, actually, invisible. As in the earlier Bunny and Bird book, How to Hatch a Dragon, there is tongue in cheek and visual humour that sharp eyed youngsters will appreciate.
    Published March 2024

    Australian children’s literature is in pretty good shape, as these new picture books show.
    All published by HarperCollins Children’s books.
    My thanks to the publishers for the review copies.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Fitting end to trilogy: ‘The Settlement’ by Jock Serong

    The Settlement is the conclusion to a trilogy of historical fiction novels by award-winning Aussie author Jock Serong. Set in early colonial times in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) the three books tell the uncomfortable story of the violence of the colonial project, the evil manifested by those involved, and the defiance of the island’s First Nations.

    I can’t recommend the first (Preservation) and second (The Burning Island) highly enough. If you enjoy both historical and crime fiction these novels are for you.

    The Settlement again moves forward in time to the 1830’s, where we meet the real-life George Augustus Robinson, the evangelistic character who took it upon himself to try to solve the problem of spiraling conflict between First Nations people and the settlers in Van Diemen’s Land.

    The so-called ‘Black Line’ – a very expensive and (for the British authorities at least) completely unsuccessful attempt to corral and capture Aboriginal people to eliminate the problem, had been a failure. Robinson convinced the authorities to allow him to locate and meet with the leaders of the groups posing a threat to white settlement, with the aim of convincing them to quit their homelands and move to a settlement on an island in the northeast.

    So the ill-fated and eponymous settlement of ‘Wybalenna’ on Flinders Island was established.

    The narrative moves between key characters: Robinson himself, and other historical figures including leading First Nations figure Mannalargenna, among others; and fictional characters such as two Aboriginal orphans, Whelk and Pipi. A sympathetic, if powerless and conflicted character is the settlement’s Storekeeper, who wrestles with his conscience and his own personal issues throughout the novel.

    Robinson himself, now called the settlement’s Commandant, also struggles with the morality of his actions, but always manages to hide behind his religious beliefs and expediency, with an eye to his future position and legacy. He becomes an illustration of the moral blankness at the heart of colonisation.

    The chilling character of the Catechist is a remake, of sorts, of the evil figures from the first two books. I heard the author in an interview describe this recurring / reincarnated character as embodying the evils of colonialism and the violence inherent in it. Or, as described in this novel, as an embodiment of the place, the hands and face of an otherwise formless despair. (p108)

    The scenes involving the death and funeral of Mannalargenna are almost unbearable, lifted only by the strength and dignity of the man’s spirit even as his body fails, and beautifully conveyed:

    Mannalargenna cared little for displays of suffering. He continued to use the grease on his skin and the ochre in the short tufts of his hair, in defiance of the Commandant’s wishes. He persisted in adorning himself in other ways, and in speaking language. Far from rendering him an alien in their midst, it made aliens of his captors. Like a holed and smoking ship of war, he would slide beneath the waves imperious.

    The Settlement p174-175

    Jock Serong has again woven a dark story around the equally dark bones of historical fact. He has cemented his place as one of my favourite Australian contemporary authors.

    The Settlement was published by Text Publishing in August 2023.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Claiming independence: ‘All the Golden Light’ by Siobhan O’Brien

    All the Golden Light is the story of one Australian woman, Adelaide Roberts, towards the end of the First World War. In a way, it’s also the story of a whole generation of women, who came into adulthood amidst the turmoil of war, a newly Federated nation, and who had to battle for the right to direct their own lives.

    We might think that Adelaide’s hopes are modest. She simply wants the right to choose her own life, to marry whom she pleases, to live a life in keeping with her own desires. In other words, freedom.

    At the turn of the twentieth century, though, these simple ambitions were beyond the reach of many women.

    Like many others, she is manipulated by family and circumstance into marriage with a man she does not love. She has met a man who fascinates her, but her future is not her own to choose.

    As events overtake her, her options seem more limited than ever, leaving her in a situation that becomes more dangerous by the day.

    The novel is set in the south coast of New South Wales, Australia, and the beauty of the islands, coastline and bush of this region is brought vividly to life.

    The terrible toll wrought by the war on small communities and the men and women affected by the conflict is also very clear.

    There is plenty of drama and tension in this novel, and readers will understand the many barriers facing women who want to live an independent, free life at this time.

    I found it difficult to relate to Adelaide and some of the other characters, and I’m at a loss as to why. It may have been just me, or what was going on for me at the time I was reading this book. But despite this, Adelaide’s predicament and struggle felt very real.

    The irony of her awakening to the women’s suffrage movement and her strong desire to exercise her own rights, while simultaneously being pushed into situations not of her choosing, is also very real:

    An image of her teenaged self came to her. She was around sixteen and huddled under the back verandah with a copy of Vida Goldsteins’ Women Voter magazine…Everywhere, women were being tortured, force-fed, imprisoned and sexually assaulted…
    In that moment, under the house, fury about the oppression that these women had endured surged through Adelaide’s veins. The world she knew, or at least she thought she knew, shifted. She realised women didn’t need to blithely adhere to convention. There was another way forward.

    All the Golden Light p 104

    All the Golden Light was published by HarperCollins in January 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    When the past bites: ‘Tipping Point’ by Dinuka McKenzie

    I’m now a definite fan of Kate Miles, the central character in this third novel by Aussie author Dinuka McKenzie featuring this determined, but very human, police detective. You can read my thoughts about Taken, book 2 in the series.

    Once again Kate is on her home turf in the fictional town of Esserton, in the NSW Northern Rivers region. She is still juggling her very demanding job with two young children while trying to be more present for them and her husband Geoff. Not an easy task.

    In this story, her birth family and its complications feature heavily and place more demands on Kate. Her brother Luke, long estranged from their father, returns to Esserton for the funeral of one of his two closest friends during their school years. A few days later, the third in their old friendship trio is found dead.

    Luke has many other issues he is trying (not very successfully) to deal with, and it’s not surprising when the shadow of suspicion falls on him.

    While Kate attempts to convince Luke to help himself, things begin to spiral out of control. Her impartiality and professionalism is brought into question as another death in the town rocks the community.

    Events from Luke and his dead friends’ pasts become inextricably linked with these tragedies, in ways the characters struggle to understand.

    The novel nicely meets the requirements of a page-turner, but as always for me it’s the characters who are the most important, especially Kate and her family. She is entirely believable and relatable and I found myself cheering for her the whole way through.

    She knew that Geoff would love her to give up the police force for a profession that placed less strain on their family life and removed his constant worries about her welfare and safety. But that would mean throwing away all the years of slog, the slow and patient climbing, dealing with all the bullshit and dick swinging and bureaucracy to prove her worth. It felt like so much of her life and identity were tied up in proving herself against those jeering voices that told her it was her skin colour, her gender and her father’s influence and not her ability that had got her there. To give it up now felt nigh-on impossible.

    The Tipping Point p99

    The Tipping Point was published by HarperCollins Books in January 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Tale of two cities: ‘Edenglassie’ by Melissa Lucashenko

    It felt quite appropriate that I was finishing this new book by Goorie author Melissa Lucashenko just as the annual public holiday of ‘Australia Day’ (also known as Invasion Day or Survival Day) dawned.

    Given that the day is supposedly Australia’s national day, but is held on January 26th, the day that Governor Phillip planted the British flag on a Sydney beach and claimed the place for the British, it raises many questions of the kind also found within this novel.

    When does colonisation of a place end – if it ever does?
    Has the modern nation of Australia moved beyond its undeniably racist beginnings?
    Who has the right to tell whose stories?
    Can we see vestiges of the past in our current cities and landscapes? What lies beneath the concrete and tall buildings?
    Can past hurts ever be healed?

    Edenglassie was a name used briefly in the early years of colonisation for part of what is now the city of Brisbane. The novel has two timelines: a current day one, and a second narrative taking place in 1855, just a few decades after the first British convicts, guards and settlers established a settlement there.

    Mulanyin is a kippa, a young Yugambeh man from the coastal region around Nerang, who has been living at Edenglassie, gone through ceremony there, fallen for a young woman, Nita, and plans to marry her, save enough money to buy a boat and return to his saltwater home. He’s received good advice from his elders, especially his Big Father, who warns him: Think hard before you pick up the things of the dagai, especially those that seem entirely pleasurable.

    He is hot headed and must learn to control his impulses, especially when he sees wrongdoing against his fellows or himself. He comes to learn that while the Law imposes bonds and obligations that chafe, it also binds all Goorie people together and protects them and their civilisation. There is a lot of information given here about some of the precepts of Aboriginal culture: the importance and purpose of ceremony, the intricate rules of kinship and marriage, the careful tending and protection of natural resources.

    It is effortlessly woven in with Mulanyin’s story, as is the language scattered liberally throughout. We learn that jarjums are children, jalgany is an Aboriginal woman, pullen pullen is a space set aside for ceremonial combat. There is no glossary – we get the meaning from context and repetition throughout the novel; the best way to learn.

    The mid-nineteenth century was a time of increased tension and conflict in areas of Australia where European settlers were pushing further, taking more land, squeezing the First peoples out of home and livelihood. Inevitably Mulanyin is caught up in some of this with tragic consequences for his people.

    His story carries through, indirectly to begin with, into the modern-day narrative. This is actually where the novel opens, in 2024, with an elderly woman known as ‘Granny Eddie Blanket’ suffering a fall in the city that sees her in hospital for most of the rest of the novel.

    Granny Eddie is a formidable woman in her nineties, with a granddaughter, Winona, who is a strong activist. A young doctor, Johnny, provides care while exploring with Winona his own search for his indigenous ancestors. While a white journalist plies Granny Eddie with questions, hoping for a story on ‘Queensland’s Oldest Aboriginal Woman.’

    Through sometimes heated discussion we hear debate on issues like cultural appropriation, ‘wannabe blackfellas’, government hypocrisy, does DNA make you Aboriginal? contemporary blak activism… This part of the narrative is both hard-hitting and frequently very funny, often at the same time.

    Granny Eddie chastises Winona for her scorn at Dr Johnny’s attempts to get closer to indigenous ancestry:

    ‘I can’t come at it, Gran,’ she finally muttered. ‘It just feels all wrong. Invasive.’
    “Yeah, I know it does,’ Granny nodded. ‘But believe me, girl. You’re thinking like a whitefella when ya close him out. That’s not our way. We bring people in, we bring our Mob home, and we care about em. We teach em how to behave proper way. So, you just knock orf and be nice to him!’
    But what if they’re the same mob that stole our Home in the first place, Winona burned to retort. What if they’re white, Nan.
    But instead, she sat down and shut her gob and stayed ning, just like a real Goorie must do when growled by her Elder.

    Edenglassie p148

    Last year I hear Melissa Lucashenko interviewed in which she described how it is for an Aboriginal person walking around modern Australia, aware of all the history under their feet; the ancestors’ birthplaces and burial sites, the places that once nurtured whole communities and were nurtured in return. Edenglassie is a novel that helps white Australians catch a glimpse of what was there before the dispossession and the violence and theft that came with invasion and colonisation.

    And, we can get a tiny glimpse into the way that ancestors’ stories and teachings are carried though into modern day lives.

    Edenglassie was published by UQP in October 2023.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Lest we forget: ‘Secret Sparrow’ by Jackie French

    The publishers had this to say about Australian author Jackie French’s latest offering for middle grade readers:

    This is the story of women who fought during WWI, but not as nurses or ambulance drivers.

    In 1917 sixteen-year-old Jean McLain is working as a post-office assistant in England. But when she wins a national Morse code competition, the British army makes a request Jean cannot refuse – to take a secret position as a signaller in France.

    If Jean can keep the signals flowing between headquarters and the soldiers at the Front, Britain might possibly win the war.

    From Secret Sparrow blurb, HarperCollins Australia

    I sometimes think that if Jackie French was not an author, she would have made a wonderful archaeologist or even miner: she is forever digging out long-buried nuggets of wonder and creating compelling stories to bring to life little-known events or circumstances from the past.

    Secret Sparrow tells the story of young Jean, whose character stands in for the women who were sent by the British to work as ‘signallers’ in WWI. Working at base camps but sometimes near or on the front lines, they operated the morse code machines, sending and receiving coded messages that were crucial in the days before mobile technology or even telephones were widely used in warfare.

    Most of these women were employed by the postal service, although on temporary ‘secondment’ to the army. This meant that they were paid at the normal rate for their postal worker job, received no special conditions and – shockingly – were not paid pensions or medical expenses due to them after injury, or at the end of the war.

    A shortage of recruits with signalling skills meant long shifts of twelve hours or more, with no toilet or meal breaks. Signallers needed to be fast and, importantly, accurate – a slip could literally be the difference between life and death for soldiers. It was crucial work.

    To add insult to injury, in researching this history, the author learned that the majority of records relating to the women signallers’ service were destroyed after the war. Was this to evade responsibility for paying pensions to these women? Or embarrassment that the authorities had needed to recruit women for what were seen as men’s jobs, due to the danger and skill involved?

    Jean’s story takes us to the heart of trench warfare in France in 1917 and the author does not try to tidy it up for younger readers. The mud, rats, lice, horrific injuries, chaos, death and fear are all there. But there is also comradeship, and kindness, and bravery.

    There are moments of humour:

    ‘Toodle-pip, ma’am,’ Sergeant Peartree said to Mrs Reynolds with a half-salute, half-wave. Jean had a feeling that he thought a woman administrator was not worth a proper salute, or possibly he simply didn’t know which one was due to her – an ignorance shared by almost the entire army, the generals included. Those worthies had not decided whether the female administrators were officers, non-commissioned officers or ordinary troops. Apparently they were simply to be treated like unicorns: a species you didn’t have to acknowledge might exist.

    Secret Sparrow p93

    Jean’s wartime story is told by her to a young Arjun, a boy she helps when they are both caught out in a flash flood in rural NSW, Australia. It is 1978 and Jean is now an older lady, who has not lost her quick thinking and survival skills. She is able to look at her wartime experiences in a nuanced way which she shares with Arjun:

    It was a stupid war, fought in stupid ways, and mostly run by stupid men… The stupidity of the battle I was in – multiply that by every battle in the war… So yes, we had to fight. But we shouldn’t have had to fight like that. England and Germany were ruled by elites, and those elites weren’t very good at ruling. They’d got the job because they were born into it, and so millions of people died.

    Secret Sparrow p226

    Lest we forget, indeed.

    Secret Sparrow was published by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books, in November 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    ‘Question 7’ by Richard Flanagan

    As I began to think about describing this book, I struggled to come up with a name for its form. Is it memoir? Non-fiction? Narrative non-fiction? Something else entirely…or all of the above?

    The publisher, Penguin Books Australia, offered this:

    At once a love song to his island home and to his parents, this hypnotic melding of dream, history, place and memory is about how our lives so often arise out of the stories of others and the stories we invent about ourselves.

    Penguin Random House

    Readers of two of Flanagan’s earlier works, Death of a River Guide (1994) and The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013) will recognise two occurrences referred to in this, his latest work. One is his near-drowning when he was a river guide on Tasmania’s wild Franklin River. The other is his father’s ordeal as a Japanese prisoner of war, first on the Burma ‘Death Railway’ and later, as a slave worker in a Japanese coal mine.

    These traumatic experiences are woven together with reflections on his own childhood in rural Tasmania in the 1960s and 70s, his family (especially his parents), Tasmania’s beginnings as a far-flung outpost of the British Empire and the resulting attempt to exterminate the island’s First Peoples, and the historic seeds of the process of scientific conjecture, discovery and work that culminated in the explosion of the first atomic bombs over Japan, which finally brought World War II to an end.

    On this last point, there is quite a lot made of the romance between the famous (and married) author HG Wells with another writer, Rebecca West in the early 1900’s, as Flanagan follows the normally unseen path that led from an affair between writers to the spark of an idea that resulted in the atom bomb.

    Unlikely? No more so than any other ‘coincidences’ of life. This author’s genius allows his readers to follow a wandering pathway between events, people and places, and see them as he does. As a reader, I had to trust that this was a writer who knew what he was doing, who could guide me along a seemingly disconnected series of events and thoughts and bring me through to the other side. In the end it all made perfect sense, even within the context of the chaos and ultimate meaninglessness of so much of the world.

    The result is like an artwork: a tightly bound, circular structure in which each apparently disparate element affects and shapes all the others.

    And the title?

    It comes from a quote by Anton Checkov in which he is sending up the kind of school mathematics problems I always loathed:

    Wednesday, June 17, 1881, a train had to leave station A at 3am in order to reach station B at 11pm; just as the train was about to depart, however, an order came that the train had to reach station B by 7pm. Who loves longer, a man or a woman?

    Question 7, loc 9%

    There are almost unbearably poignant moments, especially those concerning his parents; sadness for the lost world of his childhood; anger at certain cynical aspects of the publishing world, deep respect for the written word combined with a wry understanding that the words of a book are never the book, the soul of it is everything. (loc 58%)

    There are so many snippets of prose that are beautiful or brilliant, too many to make choosing a quote an easy task. Here is just one:

    My mother and father had a similar gift, of stitching together torn fragments into some harmony amidst the melee of daily life. My mother and my father in their stories and jokes, in their generosity and kindness to others, asserted the necessary illusion their lives might mean something in the endless tumult of this meaningless universe. For them to live, love had to exist, the love they valued above all other things; they lived that love and they fought for that love and defended that love. With the passing of time this illusion became their hard-won truth. It was a form of magic and they were magicians. In my vanity, I had always thought of them as naive. Only now writing these words do I finally see the naivete was all mine.

    Question 7 (ebook version) loc. 67%

    Question 7 was published by Penguin Random House in October 2023.

  • Books and reading

    Deep questions: ‘What Happened to Nina?’ by Dervla McTiernan

    Irish-born Australian author Dervla McTiernan writes gripping crime fiction with well drawn characters and vivid settings. What Happened to Nina? is set in a snowy Vermont winter, and centres around the main character, twenty year old Nina.

    The prologue tells us much of what we need to know about the story. Nina lives with her mum, stepfather and younger sister Grace. She has a boyfriend, Simon Jordan, and they both love rock climbing.

    One weekend they go away to stay at Simon’s family holiday cabin to climb and spend time together. Only one of the pair returns from that weekend away.

    So, what did happen to Nina?

    The narrative takes the reader into the aftermath of crime: the devastation wreaked on a victim and their family, as well as on the perpetrator’s. To a certain extent, the novel keeps us guessing, as both Nina and Simon’s families have different versions of the events that played out that weekend.

    In essence, it is a story of the awful acts that people can commit, and the lies they can tell to avoid responsibility. As readers we are invited to step into the shoes of the main people involved: Nina’s parents and sister, and Simon, his mother and father. How do you move on from tragedy? How can justice be best served? What lengths would a parent go to, to protect their child?

    It also touches on the power of social media to work both for and against victims of crime and their loved ones.

    It’s the kind of crime fiction I enjoy, raising deep questions about human behaviour and asking the reader to reflect on those questions. I found it compelling, the characters believable and in some respects, the events all too familiar.

    What Happened to Nina? is published by HarperCollins in March 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for an advance review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    He put Australia on the map: ‘Flinders’ by Grantlee Kieza

    Imagine being proposed to by letter, then marrying in a small and hasty ceremony, acting on your new husband’s assurances that you would be joining him on his next voyage on a British naval ship; only to learn that you would not, in fact, be granted permission to do so. You bid a sad farewell to your beloved, having been married a matter of weeks. Off he sails, to explore and chart a vast southern continent on the other side of the globe.

    You do not see your husband again for nearly a decade.

    This is what happened to Ann Chappelle, who married Matthew Flinders in Lincolnshire, England, in 1801. To say that her new husband was impulsive and careless, as Kieza describes him, is an understatement. However it is also true that he was a man of his age, ambitious, curious about the world, passionate about science and the sea, keen to venture into the unknown. And there is no question that he adored his wife.

    Reading this detailed and vivid account of the life of an extraordinary figure of Australia’s early colonial history, I discovered some personal links with my own family history. One is that he came from the same part of England from where my paternal ancestors migrated in the mid-1800s, the marshy fens of Lincolnshire. His lifelong mentor, the botanist Joseph Banks, was also born there.

    From an early age Matthew wanted more than a small life in a small village, working as a physician like his father. He was attracted to the sea and inspired by the adventures of Captain James Cook and Banks on the Endeavour, and he joined the navy when he was sixteen.

    He first served under another famous figure, William Bligh, experiencing terrifying battles against the French, voyages to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji, through the treacherous reefs of the Torres Strait, to Jamaica and then back to England. In most of those places there were encounters with the original inhabitants, as well as astonishing new sights, sounds, smells and foods, and Matthew developed his charting skills which would become such an important part of his work. It is hard to overstate how much these experiences would have affected a youngster from a small, quiet corner of England.

    He was to have command of his own ships of exploration: most famously the tiny Tom Thumb, on which (along with surgeon George Bass) he explored areas around the Sydney settlement and beyond. Later they circumnavigated Tasmania and proved it was an island, separate from the mainland of ‘Terra Australis.’

    Subsequent voyages took him to parts of the continent still relatively remote today: up the Queensland coast to the furthest reaches of Cape York Peninsula and the islands of the Torres Strait, across the Gulf of Carpentaria to Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, and around the southern coastline of the continent. On these voyages he was accompanied by the famous Trim, the black-and-white cat who became Matthew’s beloved and loyal companion for many years.

    He experienced shipwreck, sickness, injury, thirst and near starvation. None of these deterred his passion for life at sea and for exploration.

    Everywhere he ventured he created charts and kept detailed notes of his observations. It’s difficult for us in today’s connected world to understand that to Europeans at that time, ‘Terra Australis’ was largely a mystery – thousands of kilometers of coastline and a vast interior which was – what? Desert? An inland sea? A network of rivers? No Europeans knew.

    Another significant feature of Matthew’s experiences was the help given to him and his crews by the indigenous people they encountered. Interactions included warning shots from muskets and some occasions that came close to outright armed conflict; but many times the British mariners had help in the form of fresh water, guidance through difficult country, or exchanges of European goods for food.

    Indeed, it is significant that one of the first times the word ‘Australians’ was used, it was to describe First Nations people near what is now called Port Lincoln in South Australia.

    And what of Ann, his wife in far-away Lincolnshire?

    The couple exchanged letters, full of longing and (on Ann’s part at least) occasional exasperation. The wives of British sea captains had to resign themselves to long periods of separation, though for Ann, this was further prolonged, when on his homeward voyage in 1803, Matthew put in to the French-controlled island of Mauritius for emergency repairs and reprovisioning, only to be placed under guard as a potential British spy. Because news from Europe took so long to reach British colonial outposts, Britain and France were again at war, but Matthew had not known of it.

    He was to spend seven long years in captivity of varying degrees of discomfort, before finally being released in 1810.

    He and Ann were at last reunited and set up house together, Ann giving birth to a daughter at the relatively old age (for a first-time mother in the 1800s) of nearly forty-one. Matthew’s health, though, was badly affected by his trials at sea. And sadly, he had to battle with the Admiralty to be given the pay owing him while he’d been imprisoned by the French, and for due recognition for his work in mapping Australia.

    Matthew Flinders died in 1814 from renal failure following years of kidney and bladder problems. He was only forty years old.

    He led an extraordinary life, voyaging through seas and territories previously unknown to Europeans, experiencing many dangers and hardships. He adopted the name Australia for the southern continent he spent so much of his time exploring and he urged the authorities to do likewise.

    The aspect of Flinders’ personality that I most admire, though, is that he was a man whose greatest wish was that his work, his charts and discoveries, would be used for the benefit of science and the greater knowledge of humanity in general, not for warfare or domination. In this, of course, he was disappointed, but he lived his life in the service and pursuit of knowledge.

    Flinders is a finely researched and well-written account of a fascinating figure of Australian colonial history, the man who – quite literally – put Australia on the map.

    Flinders was published by HarperCollins in November 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.