JANE RAWSON From the Wreck. Reviewed by Linda Godfrey
Jane Rawson’s new novel has its feet planted in the earth as well as in the ocean and the stars.
Rawson says that she began this book as an attempt to record and make sense of historical facts from her family’s past. She knew that her great-great-grandfather, George Hills, was on the steamship Admella that was wrecked on the 6 August 1859 on Carpenters Reef, off the coast of South Australia.
Where she takes that story after that bald fact is stellar, or maybe I should say interstellar.
George and 23 other people survived the wreck. They were rescued after eight days —because of bad weather they could not be reached earlier. In this fictional account, before the shipwreck George has seen an ethereal figure, a woman, communing with the horses on board and licking the foam around their mouths. George can’t make sense of what he’s seen and goes looking for her on the ship, but she is nowhere to be found. His mates direct him to Bridget Ledwith’s room, but what he saw wasn’t her.
The figure is an intergalactic creature, forced from her planet by invaders:
They built machines, giant, and chemical plants. They built walls in the water and broke the ocean into seas and then they pushed the seas aside.
… They murdered us by accident and design. They won and we lost. There were so few of us left and so we fled. We launched ourselves out into that great quiet space. We listened to nothing but the thrum of the stars for I don’t know how long. We tumbled into another time, space, dimension.
The creature arrives on Earth, finds an ocean and says, ‘I crawled into this cave’. The creature is ungendered, but I am referring to it as female because of the forms she takes.
She takes the shape of an octopus: ‘But we were built for thinking, for making, for talking. We could squeeze into any space.’
She cleaves to George while he clings to the wreck. She saves him by feeding him human flesh from dead shipwrecked companions, pushing it into his mouth with a tentacle.
George is rescued, goes home, begins his family with his fiancée Eliza, now his wife. He is wracked by guilt and shame over the cannibalism but tells no one. Conversations around the fire at night with his brother-in-law explore Charles Darwin’s new theories on evolution. George cannot forget the being he calls Bridget Ledwith.
She stays with him as a cat and appears as a woman at opportune moments. When his child Henry is born, the midwife is a shape-shifted Bridget and she attaches herself to Henry’s back. Even her name is mutable: she is Bridget Ledwith, Bridget Sidney, and Henry calls her Mark, for the shape she takes as a birthmark. The remainder of the story concentrates on the tension between George, as he attempts to rid his family of Bridget/Mark, and Henry, who protects her.
This book is very much about interconnectedness and politics. It’s about how humans are convinced in their thinking that they are dominant species on the planet, that they have dominion over all animals and environments. Having the historical setting juxtaposes that thinking with the idea that everything in the universe, not just on Earth, is interdependent. We came from the stars, we evolved from the ocean. (Let’s not think about the populist theories of L Ron Hubbard and the story of how Superman came to live on Earth.)
Jane Rawson throws up many ideas to think about: the destruction of the environment and the atmosphere, the trashing of our oceans, whether animals have intelligence, space travel to find other places to live. And evolution. The planet was once all ocean and all life consisted of ocean creatures; humans have evolved from ocean creatures that became other animal forms. George’s cannibalism emphasises this point: we all feed off each other. What are we doing in our world today, but using other species as fodder: killing them, denying them safe, clean places to live free of violence, rejecting those who are deemed ‘not us’? People and animals are sacrificed to feed the desires of the dominators.
But the reverse is also crystal clear – call it ecology, call it society or politics, but we need each other to survive. This is most evident in the migration drama currently unfolding in the US. Human beings who care about other humans are coming to the aid of those who are stranded: protesters, lawyers and judges. People assisting others in need. We are all interconnected.
The survivors of this headlong rush to destruction will be the most adaptable. Some people say cockroaches, Jane Rawson thinks octopuses:
We could shift into any shape. And that was who we were and what we did: we didn’t fight the others to be bigger, fiercer, more toothy.
The book is not without touches of humour. Rawson says in a blog she wrote on the background to this book that she likes cats. Thus when George is brought ashore from the wreck, Bridget transforms into a cat:
My cold wet cave tugs at me but I am beginning to find again those scraps of bravery so I take a smaller form, closer to the ground, four-legged and fine whiskered, soft pawed, sharp pawed, and I raise my tail like a flag and slip out into this world and see what is what.
At another moment:
Bea watched as Miss Sidney tried to lift her glass to her mouth. She seemed to be struggling with its slipperiness. The girl held her hand up before her face and tapped its back once, twice. A circle of flesh raised itself, pop, on her palm and she took the glass up once more, this time with great success.
You can take the girl out of the octopus but not the …
If you are feeling staid in your reading and your thinking and you need fresh ideas that have been beautifully contemplated and written, this is the book. Don’t be put off by the ethereal tone of the writing or any thought that you don’t like speculative fiction. This book has its feet planted in the earth as well as in the ocean and the stars.
Jane Rawson From the Wreck Transit Lounge 2017 267pp PB $29.95
Linda Godfrey is a writer, editor and Program Manager of the Wollongong Writers Festival. She is studying towards a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong, writing a novel about cults.
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