The Burial, by Courtney Collins

Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Australian author Courtney Collins just about lost me in the opening 14 pages of her debut novel, The Burial.

It starts with a three-page prologue featuring Houdini, handcuffed and wrapped in chains in the Yarra River in Melbourne in 1910. As he breaks his bonds underwater, he finds a leg iron wrapped around a limb — not his. When he finally reaches the surface, there is no sign of the bloated body and “he cannot think of how to explain it or who to tell.” Okay, we have our story-setting metaphor (and, I’ll confess, one that landed as a somewhat hackneyed one): an escape tale that will feature more than one buried/submerged body.

And sure enough in the short three opening chapters, the narration comes from a buried body, a newly-born child:

Morning of my birth, my mother buried me in a hole that was two feet deep. Strong though she was, she was week from my birth, and as she dug the wind filled the hole with leaves and the rain collapsed it with mud so all that was left was a wet and spindly bed.

When the sun inched awkwardly up she lowered me into the grave. Then, lying prone on the earth, she stroked my head and sang to me. I had never, in my short life, heard her sing. She sang to me until the song got caught in her throat. Even as she bawled and spluttered, her open hand covered my body like the warmest blanket.

Precocious child narrators rank very high on my list of least favorite literary devices. The prospect of a one-day old one, buried in a shallow grave, immediately raised visions of a version of The Lovely Bones, told from below ground rather than from the heavens above. I was quite prepared to abandon the novel immediately, but a twinge of guilt said I had to give Collins at least a few more pages.

And I was quickly glad that I did. We meet the mother (and her horse, Houdini — that metaphor cannot be escaped) as she rides into the boundary of “Fitz’s clearing”, where “pulling out Fitz’s boots, she drained them of water then walked towards the upper gate barefoot”:

There was still smoke rising from the house. Only part of it had tumbled, only part of the roof collapsed. Half looked like it was sliding into a hole while the other half was perfectly intact.

She slid her feet into Fitz’s boots, which were heavy — and even heavier wet. The leather against her toe was cracked, a monument to Fitz, to his kicking. Her skin was smarting within them and her bruised hip pained her as she walked. She was thinking that a bruise should not outlast a man. A boot may last, but the bruises he made should vanish with him.

Please be dead, she said. And it was not the first time she had said it.

Fitz is, in fact, dead in the cellar (“the smell of vinegar and onions, just as he had always smelt”): “She could breathe”. And with that Collins supplies a summary of the narrative that will occupy the novel:

Beyond the house and Fitz’s forest, the mountains spread out north and west. The sight of them, the magnificent stretch of them, was enough to bring my mother to her feet again. She swayed through the paddock towards the gate. Cattle moved quietly around her, looking dim.

When she reached the gate she used it to step up onto Houdini’s back. She took his mange and steered his head to face the highest point of the mountains. Then she leant in close to his ear and said, My friend, even if I fucking die and rot upon your back, do not stop until we get there.

“Mother” is Jessie Hickman and we know from a short sentence before the prologue that her story is based on the real Jessie Hickman — given my limited knowledge of Australian frontier characters, I had never heard of her. While author Collins takes some time to reveal the details of the back story (which I’m assuming are familiar to many Australian readers), it doesn’t seem to be a spoiler to sketch some of them here.

In her teenage and young adult years, Jessie was an accomplished horse and cattle rustler — alas, not so accomplished that she didn’t get caught. She is in prison when in October, 1917 Fitzgerald Henry shows up to, quite literally, take possession of her. Jessie had listed “horse-breaker” as one of her skills — as a condition of her release she has to accept an offer of employment and Fitz wants her as his apprentice, allegedly to break horses for the war effort.

Actually, Fitz is quite a bit more interested in a talent she has not put on her form (horse-stealing) and while Jessie is expected to “occasionally serve as his domestic” that latter task mainly involves being raped when he returns to his ranch drunk from a visit to the nearby village. Her horse (and cattle) rustling ability is his major interest.

I have included a fair number of quotes to provide a sense of the voice that Collins uses in the novel. While she thankfully does not often return to the buried newborn one, Jessie’s tale as a fugitive is told in the same dry, present tense tone — in its own way, it supplies a sepia-like patina that one appreciates in a frontier novel.

Jessie will experience a number of successes, trials and tribulations as she pursues her goal of getting to “the highest point in the mountains” which I am choosing not to get into here. She will run into a number of interesting characters (I particularly liked her time spent with a gang of runaway youths who are as good at horse and cattle rustling as she is) and they add depth to the fugitive story. I am not sure that there are enough “female frontier fugitives” in fiction for it to qualify as a genre, but there are certainly some, at least in North American lore — and Collins’ version of Jessie’s Australian story is a worthwhile addition to the list.

While I hadn’t planned it, The Burial is the second Australian frontier novel I have read in recent months. Alex Miller’s Watching The Climbers On The Mountain has some similar characteristics (the punishing isolation of a cattle station, abuse of the central female character, the “misfit” aspect of most of the characters and a search for escape) but uses a far different voice — perhaps that is one reason why I was impressed with the one that Collins employs in this novel.

Either way, as an acknowledged aficionado of North American frontier fiction, I was enrolled in the story in both books. Collins does not yet have the developed writing talent that Miller shows (he has published a dozen novels, after all) but she shows enough in this debut to indicate that her work bears watching in the future.

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33 Responses to “The Burial, by Courtney Collins”

  1. Sharkell Says:

    This book made my top ten list last year. I loved the narration by the one day old dead baby, very unique. As an Aussie, I wasn’t aware of Jessie Hickman’s story – I love learning about history through novels.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thanks for the reminder that not everyone shares my aversion to child narrators :-) — a number of novels that feature them sell very well. I have idea how accurate this version of the Jessie Hickman story is, but it does make for a very good read.

  2. Lisa Hill Says:

    You’ve reminded me that I have a copy of this – on my Kindle, where I am starting to find that books bought that way tend to be forgotten about by me because there’s no physical presence on the shelf to remind me to read them.

  3. whisperinggums Says:

    Same here Sharkell. I thought it was a wonderful read, partly because I’d never heard of Jessie Hickman but also because the writing was so evocative. I found the choice of narrative voice helps humanise Jessie (as I wrote in my review).

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I was very impressed with the way that Collins used voice, tone and pace to capture both Jessie’s challenge but also the territory around her. Many writers who set work in the frontier go overboard with description — Collins’ “spare” approach brought it to life quite fully for me.

  4. Macca Says:

    Regarding her characters Ms Collins’ is all but pure fiction. There was an Elizabeth Jessie Hickman, nee Hunt, she was a brilliant equestrian and smalltime cattle lifter but that’s about as far as it goes. A well researched account of her life, written by her grandaughter, Di Moore, is to be published this year, watch out for it. The title: “Out of the Mists – The Hidden History of Elizabeth Jessie Hickman”.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thank you very much for that. Given what has been said in the comments (since I know Sharkell, Lisa and WG are all from Down Under) it was apparent that Jessie’s story is not very well-known. She certainly served as a fine inspiration to the author.

  5. kimbofo Says:

    Glad you persevered, Kevin. While this one didn’t make my top 10 last year, it was certainly one of the most memorable books I read in 2013.

    And just to echo everyone else: Jessie’s story isn’t well known in Oz, although we all know about male bushrangers such as Ned Kelly, Ben Hall and Dan Morgan. And I think this is probably why the book got such a good reception: it’s a story about a feisty female character “rescued” from history.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I suspect you are right that the “rescue” effect came into play, particularly when the writing that supported it was so strong. I did find I was occasionally making some contrasts with The Luminaries as well — it was interesting to contemplate how somewhat similar stories were told in such vastly different styles (Victorian ornateness for Catton versus back country sparseness here).

  6. Judy Gardner Says:

    Good morning
    I’m reading David Mason’s book The Pope’s Book Binder and thought you might enjoy it. You may know of it but if not check it out.
    I enjoy reading your reviews and discovering authors I don’t know
    Thank you for such fine reviewing
    Judy

  7. james b chester Says:

    I been reading about Australian literature quite a bit today. I’m not if this review makes me want to read this book, but the comments certainly did. If not this one, then something else from Australia.

  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    She can clearly write, but the prospect of a point of view narration (even briefly) from a one-day old dead baby is hugely offputting.

    If I read it I’m sure that like you I’d get past that and find much to enjoy, given your description of it, but not perhaps more than I would find in other books without dead baby dialogue.

    As a rule of thumb, though I admit not an absolute one, if dead children must speak in books I tend to prefer it to be to utter dire warnings in the context of some harrowing horror novel.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I suspect the comments illustrate that narration from a deceased child is less of an issue for female readers than it is for male ones. I still don’t think it added much to the book — fortunately, Collins showed a lot of other strengths.

      • Lisa Hill Says:

        Kevin, I was going to keep out of this discussion because (although I was persuaded to buy the book by a friend telling me about a 99c special at Amazon) my favourite bloggers *nod to Sue and Kim* really liked it.
        But I have to tell you that I have never been able to muster the slightest interest in reading it. For this female reader, deceased narrators of any age (Book Thief, Lovely Bones etc.) are a meaningless conceit, a surrogate omnipotent narrator masquerading as a character who has been designed to attract attention to an otherwise insignificant work with a gimmick. Of all states with which a reader might conceivably empathise, the state of an afterlife is the only one for which humans have no evidence, no means of knowing what it might be like, if indeed an afterlife with some kind of consciousness exists at all.
        Therefore, with all good humour, I feel obliged to defend my gender against your suggestion that females are more tolerant of dead baby narrators!

        • whisperinggums Says:

          Can’t resist a response to this, Lisa. I wouldn’t call the narrator of The book thief a deceased narrator, exactly. It is Death himself (I think it’s a male though I may remembering incorrectly). Also, what about dead characters who aren’t narrators, such as Beloved in Toni Morrison’s book?

          I’m not sure I need to have evidence of something – such as an afterlife – to be able to accept someone’s imagining of it. That seems to negate whole bodies of literature – such as fantasy and sci fi. These are not genres I generally read, but I’m happy to accept that people can imagine unknown/unheard of beings and create them on the page. Or, have I misread your comment?

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        My apologies, Lisa, for some very misleading phrasing. What I meant to suggest is that from comments here and elsewhere on the dead child narrator issue I think “fewer female readers than male ones” are bothered by the device. I think the evidence supports that — it does not support the generalization of my original statement.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        For what it is worth, the problem that I have with dead child narrators (and it weighs heavier in The Lovely Bones than in this one) is that it strikes me as a lazy device for the author. The “child” effect allows the writer to “cheat” with problems, because it is a child we are dealing with after all, isn’t it? When Collins is telling the story through the third person it worked for me — I cringed every time we returned to the grave.

        • whisperinggums Says:

          I agree that Collins didn’t overuse it, but interestingly I didn’t cringe when we returned to the grave. Rather it tended to shock me. It reminded me, hang on, remember what happened! Made me wonder how are we to view Jessie? Sympathetically? Disapprovingly? I thought the device did add another layer, but I appreciated that it was used light-handedly after the initial shock of surely she (Jessie) is not doing what I think she’s doing!

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ve reposted this as it’s unreadable as a direct reply to WG. Kevin, if you could delete the original response to WG that would be kind.

    Coming back to a comment of WG’s, I do read both fantasy and SF (though admittedly much less than I do literary fiction), and I grew up on both. I’m not sure that rules that work for those though work for this kind of novel.

    For example, in a fantasy novel if it’s established that a world has elves and magic that’s part of the premise, it’s part of the genre. If I can’t accept that I simply can’t read the book.

    If though I were reading a book set in 1950s Chicago about a struggling jazz pianist and his relationship with his family then I’d find the appearance of an elf or wizardry jarring to put it mildly. In the fantasy novel a protagonist faced with a challenge might legitimately resort to magic to address it, but in a realist novel that simply isn’t the case and I think most readers would find it a cop out if that were to happen.

    The issue for me with characters speaking from the afterlife in realist fiction though is much more fundamental. Generally the dead character fills a role in the narrative, and a dead child can’t help but carry a sense of waste, loss, of wrongness even.

    If they’re actually still alive though in some metaphysical sense, well then, it’s not so bad is it? A serial killer may have assaulted and murdered a young girl, but she’s in heaven so actually it’s not as bad as it seems because while what happened was awful now she’s happy.

    As a matter of pure drama that utterly undercuts the horror of what happened to the character. Its the irrevocability of death that in part makes it so terrible. It’s the loss of all that potential that makes a child’s death particularly tragic. If they’re happily chatting away though, well, it’s not that different than if they’d moved to Germany and don’t have cellphone access. They’re still around, we’re just not in touch with them any more.

    That’s the problem with dead narrators. The author is trying to use death as a dramatic device, as a source of tragedy and loss, but they also want to reassure by having the character not really dead after all but simply out of sight in some metaphysical afterlife. It doesn’t work.

    None of that of course precludes a serious novel which explores the concept of the afterlife. You could have a fascinating novel where a character dealing with grief encounters evidence that their loved one still continues in some sense (this is the concept of the film Truly, Madly, Deeply which does a pretty good job of it). I don’t think though you can just drop it in to an otherwise realist novel, because talking dead people just aren’t part of our normal human experience.

    • whisperinggums Says:

      (And Kevin …. please delete my even more unreadable reply … I hadn’t seen that Max had entered his comment again here)

      Thanks for this Max. I agree with what you say about fantasy and sci fi. I was really trying to understand Lisa’s comment that “the state of an afterlife is the only one for which humans have no evidence, no means of knowing what it might be like”. She said, I think, that we therefore cannot empathise with such a character/being, but I’m not sure we need “evidence” of a being to be able to let our imaginations go with it/to be able to empathise? This is separate from whether the device is effective or not. I might have misunderstood Lisa though.

      As for The burial, your comment that dead child narrators are used (or may be used) “to reassure by having the character not really dead after all” doesn’t apply here I think. At least, that’s not how I saw that character (i.e. that it’s ok, she has an afterlife), and I’m not sure that’s what Collins intended. The baby isn’t the subject or focus of the novel, the way the girl in a book like The lovely bones is.

      What an interesting discussion!

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Just to muddy the waters even further…

      Collins does use the dead child’s voice in an even more different way, which I think does give the device more credibility. You have to go back to the original Houdini scene I mentioned in which he discovers a body part before his own escape — the author must have included it for a reason and does name Jessie’s horse Houdini.

      For me, the grave (even more than the voice) became an almost metaphorical link between Jessie’s past and her search — in fact, given my personal distaste for dead narrators, I’d say that was the way I mentally chose to regard it. Since that voice only emerges periodically after the opening pages, it seemed more appropriate to regard it as echoes in Jessie’s mind of what had gone before — I say “echoes” because I don’t think she is quite yet up to addressing that past directly.

      Max’s original comments here fairly capture my problems with dead child narrators — one of the reasons that I could tolerate Collins use of this one is that some, indeed most, of those objections don’t apply in this book.

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