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.