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Posted on 22 Jan 2019 in Crime Scene |

DAVID WHISH-WILSON The Coves. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

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David Whish-Wilson is best known for his historical crime fiction set in Perth and surrounds, but The Coves takes us to 1849 San Francisco, gold fever and the Australian gangs who controlled the part of it known as Sydney-town.

The Coves is partly the story of a lawless San Francisco in the grip of a gold rush, with gangs controlling their own areas of the growing town, ramshackle buildings, gold fever and the struggle to survive. It’s also the touching, and sometimes worrying, story of 12-year-old Sam Bellamy, a tough, resilient kid who has survived things that would make most people shake their heads in amazement:

Sam Bellamy hid under the netting lashed over the trunks on the foredeck, the dog under his armpit. Tried to make his face clear although his heart sickened and his hands trembled. He’d learned in the Boys Home to shut his mouth and see nothing when the older boys turned spiteful on the weaker boys, but this was a new kind of horror.

Young Sam Bellamy is on his way from his native Australia to San Francisco in search of his mother – a prostitute whom he barely knows. He’s determined, brave, and kind hearted, with his loyal dog (unnamed) as his constant companion. This reader will confess to a constant heightened terror over the dog’s possible fate, to say nothing of Sam’s, as they dodge violence and desperation every step of the way:

He’d survived the Boys Home and the mutiny thus far, when Dempsey and some of the men had gone crazed with the murderousness, even laughing while they killed, but now Sam felt like a rat flushed from a pile of straw.

Right from the outset, the people on the ship Sam has ended up on dictate the world in which he lives once they make it to America. The desperation of these men is fuelled by rum and fervour, a sort of collective madness that takes hold and drives them towards the goldfields, with the cargo and the ship itself believed to be their stake in this new world. Luckily for Sam there’s a shred of decency even among murderers and thieves, and so it’s also here that he meets the two members of the Sydney Coves gang who are willing to keep an eye on him – Keane and Clement:

The gunman looked across from them all, seated docile like the pious in chapel and he the minister, opening the chamber of the revolver like a priest checking a songbook, thumbing it closed and placing it gently into its holster. No pleasure or light in his eyes. A man who had killed many. Distant enough from Dempsey to have avoided the curtain of gore thrown upon them all. Looking again at Sam, and Sarah Proctor, and calling them out of the assembled felons with the barest cock of his head.

Adjusting to life in San Francisco isn’t an easy undertaking, with everything just a bit wilder and more ramshackle than what he’s left behind; even the relationships with the Chinese merchants are different from those at home in the Swan River. But the biggest learning curve is the tension between the incoming Australians – gold seekers and crooks alike – and the American population: ‘”Quiet,” the publican hissed. “In here, you’re an American. My clientele, you understand …”’

It’s a big learning curve for a 12-year-old boy, even one as wily and resourceful as Sam, who sets about the task of searching for his long-lost mother while finding himself working as a messenger for the cunning and ruthless Coves gang:

There was cheering from the street. A face powdered black from firing emerged inside the frame of the blasted brothel wall and nodded. Held up a hand indicating five dead, every man in the room still deafened. A hand clamped Sam’s shoulder and he looked up into Clement’s face. Saw not weariness but excitement.

The belief that Sam has in the love of his mother – that she would be here, waiting for him – is touching, heartbreaking and frustrating at the same time. But it’s his quest, and once he’s on a quest Sam is determined to stay the course. Along with the violence, the crime, the deprivation and the nastiness of life, this determination is just one of the bright elements, along with Sam’s love of his dog; his friendship with Sarah Proctor – from the same ship, a prostitute with a heart of gold who avoids becoming a cliché with her self-awareness and humour; and his love interest in Ai, the daughter of a Chinese tailor:

The dog followed at his heels as he called out hellos to the men that greeted him as he walked toward Sydney-town, the name of the girl Ai on his lips, saying it to himself again and again in the manner she had taught him. Her name was as beautiful as she was, and put together, her name and her face was like a crack of light in his day, and even the cold wind on his face was a refreshment and a friend.

At 180 pages, this novel looks like a quick read, but it’s an intricate undertaking, steeped in the history of the time, written in the appropriate terminology and speech patterns. This may require a little slowing down when reading – think of it as being absorbed in the period – which conveniently will give you more time to spend with Sam and more of a chance to understand just what a strong, kind, refreshingly gentle character he is. It will also give you even more time to obsess over his and the dog’s ultimate fates.

That’s where the entire strength of this novel lies. The relationship between Sam and his dog is beautiful, worrying, uplifting and frequently joyous, with more than enough highs in a life of difficulties to make you smile as you’re reading. In the acknowledgements for The Cove David Whish-Wilson says:

This novel started when my eight-year-old son came to me and asked me to write a story about him. When I said that I couldn’t do that, he countered slyly with ‘Then can you write a book about a boy like me?’

His father has done him proud.

David Whish-Wilson The Coves Fremantle Press 2018 PB 224pp $27.99

Karen Chisholm blogs from //, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.

You can buy The Coves from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.