South of Darkness
By John Marsden
I borrowed this item from the library 7 day table when I noted the name John Marsden. I had not read anything of his for some time as his usual market is young adult. On the other hand, the jacket promised a convict story and the blurb delivered same. With my personal interest in colonial history, I thought it might be an interesting read.
What I actually got was an avowed adult novel (Marsden’s first) with the promised story line of an orphaned youth (aged from 12 to approx. 14 through the tale) who is literally self-transported under odd circumstances from a tough life in London (‘Hell’) to an even tougher life in New South Wales.
There are a number of problems involved. The narrator is the young hero as an older person telling the story from a young person’s POV. There are problems of context and language as the narrator has to feed the reader all sorts of background information without being too wordy and letting the research dominate. Certainly, it does seem a well researched work with plenty of interesting detail including the sex life of male convicts – a lead issue in the eventual end of transportation. The convict ship mentioned was actually part of the Third Fleet and many other details are accurate though there is the occasional slip (‘on the back of stamp’ well before 1840).
The story line is essentially simple but overloaded, particularly at the conclusion, with coincidence – not something I enjoy. Nevertheless, there are long sequences set in London, shipboard and on the run in the Australian bush that were absorbing and well-constructed reading.
Partly in order to create a time-appropriate tone and to voice a growing moral sense in the young hero, there are regular biblical references and especially to the story of the trials of Job. He also measures his existence against ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ which he is fortuitously able to read (very unusual for such a person at that time).
I have convict ancestry and have to agree with Marsden’s depiction of criminality, the judicial system of the time and general colonial life. My female ancestor didn’t steal the literal ‘handkerchief’. She stole from at least 6 different locations and was obviously pretty desperate. The judicial, economic and housekeeping logic of transportation is also made clear.
One very innovative aspect of the plot is regular references to child abuse sex especially between men (and youths). I don’t believe I have encountered it much before except in government and investigative reports.
If you can forgive the occasional excursion into ‘boys own’ atmosphere, this is an engaging very novel read.