This week, I welcome award winning Australian author, Jane Rawson, to my blog. Jane is the author of a unique catalogue of books, including two fiction, one novella and one non-fiction. A journalist, photographer, environmental advocate and ex-travel writer, Rawson has clearly seen a lot and this worldliness comes through in her writing.
Photo credit: Leah Jing McIntosh, kindly supplied by Jane Rawson.
Her latest novel, From the Wreck, won the Aurealis Award for Best Science Fiction, was shortlisted for the Readings Prize for new Australian Fiction and the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature, and to top it off, was recently longlisted for the 2018 Miles Franklin Award.
I recently read From the Wreck and was drawn to Rawson’s tender approach to her subject matter. I hope you enjoy this review and Q & A with Jane Rawson.
Review of From the Wreck
From the Wreck is based on the true story of George Hills, who survived the Admella shipwreck off the South Australia coast in 1859. George is a somewhat reluctant husband and father, traumatised by his ordeal and at turns besotted and haunted by the memory of his saviour, the mysterious and elusive, Bridget Ledwith. Is Ledwith a human woman, witch or something other-worldly?
What begins as historical fiction, melds into something so unique and magical, it is unlike any other work of fiction you’ll discover.
After some persuasion, George settles for the family life, perhaps in the hope of distraction from Ledwith’s curse or charm, only to find his son Henry, marked by his trauma too.
Henry is a peculiar child, fascinated by death and decay, but he is also just a child like any other. He is curious, but most of all, he wants to be loved and yearns for acceptance.
George’s hostility towards his own son is unsettling. But it is not his son he despises, rather Henry’s differences. As time passes, George renews his quest to find Ledwith and tragedy strikes again.
While George may be a victim of the shipwreck, Ledwith is a victim of something much greater. The absolute loss of home and loved ones. She’s a refugee of sorts and like any refugee, she is desperate, often confused, trying and failing to find a way to settle in a new and unfamiliar place, while never giving up the hope of finding her own kind.
On the surface, From the Wreck is a story about the enduring effects of trauma. But more significantly, it is a story about tolerance, embracing our differences and the importance of meeting our most basic needs. The need to be loved, to have a safe place to call home and the need for acceptance. It is also reminder to not fear the unknown.
With global politics fixing its stare on refugees, Rawson’s tender, captivating tale is so relevant. How we accept and treat other life and lives, is surely the point of it all and there’s a powerful and timely message here for humanity.
From the Wreck is a beautiful, original story that captured my attention and holds it long after I finished the final page.
Q & A with Jane Rawson
Q. I’m fascinated by the idea of a Bridget Ledwith’s form. What was your inspiration for introducing this other-worldly element to your story?
A. I’d already written a couple of drafts of From the Wreck before it took this turn. The book was going to be straight historical fiction, but I was finding I just couldn’t make it work. I put it aside and decided instead to get a tattoo of my great great grandfather and the wreck. I was on the tattooist’s table for hours and hours, and eventually I told her the story of the wreck of the Admella, and what I was trying to write. ‘I think that Bridget Ledwith could be creepier than you realise,’ she said. So I went home and wrote the scene at the beginning of the book where Bridget is communing with the horses on board the ship. I liked it. But I didn’t know what else to do. I started thinking about other things, including octopuses – I got a bit obsessed with them. I was fascinated that they are so intelligent, but so short-lived. My husband suggested maybe it was because they come from another dimension, where time passes more slowly.
One afternoon, frustrated, I wrote a few random paragraphs set in the quiet of space. And I started thinking about who it might be, telling this story – could it be an alien from another dimension? Could it be octopus-like? Could it be fleeing the destruction of its home? Could it end up on a shipwreck and take the form of Bridget Ledwith? Well, maybe it could. So I gave it a try.
Q. There’s much longing in From the Wreck. George longs for answers about his saviour. Henry longs for answers about why he is so different. Bridget Ledwith longs for home.
From the Wreck has the ingredients of a tragedy, and yet you tell it with such tenderness, that it doesn’t erode the reader’s attention. It has a warmth that is engaging. Was this planned from the outset or refined through the development process?
A. This is such an interesting question, and not something I’ve ever thought about. I suppose it results from the compassion I always have for the characters in my books. They’re very real to me. And I spend a lot of time thinking about their feelings, their thoughts and actions. I tend to write from character, rather than from plot; I think about ‘what would this person, given everything I know about them, do next in this situation’ rather than ‘how can I get this thing I want to happen to happen’. In the first two drafts of this novel, George was a much less difficult character – much more loving and warm. And I think I still had that George in my heart when I was writing the man he turned out to be in the final draft – an angry, terrified, bitter person who just wants a moment of peace and safety.
I tend to write from character, rather than from plot; I think about ‘what would this person…do next in this situation.’
I had a lot of sympathy for him. Henry is based on my nephew, who I love very much, and he was always in my mind while I was writing. And poor Bridget; there wasn’t anything I could do that would make up for the loss of her home and species, but I did hope she’d find joy in her physical being, if only now and again.
Q. There are parallels between the treatment of Henry and Bridget Ledwith in your novel, with the treatment of refugees in Australia and overseas. Around the globe, people are turned away and demonised simply because they are different and from another place.
Writers have the power to challenge politics, prejudices and the accepted norms. How do you see your role in shaping the political debate?
I think I have pretty much no role. I don’t set out to influence – so few people read novels, and such a tiny subsection of those read my novels. And when we make decisions, every minute of our lives, about who to be and who is going to get hurt in the process, things we’ve read in fiction almost never play into our choices. But I write about the things that I care about and that I think are important, and to act as some kind of witness to what’s going on around me.
‘…I write about the things that I care about and that I think are important…’
The two ideas that were most plaguing me as I was writing From the Wreck were the terrible things we’ve done to wild animals in the world – the way we’ve left them nowhere to live – and our cruelty to humans who have also been forced from their homes. None of us like to think about our complicity in all this death and suffering. I don’t like to think about it. But sometimes I have to and so it’s what I write about.
Q. If I were a shape-shifter and could become any other creature, I think I would be a bird. I love the idea of stretching my wings, feeling the rush of air between my feathers and gliding over unspoilt land. I wonder, would you be an alien octopus?
Boringly, I would be a cat. I tried learning to scuba dive when I was writing From the Wreck – I wanted a better idea what it would be like being an octopus – and I HATE being underwater! I like semi-napping in the sunshine and being patted. I love being warm. While I have a lot of feelings for the natural world and for wilderness, I don’t much like being in them. Couches and heaters are much more my kind of space; I would definitely be a cat.
From the Wreck was first published in Australia by Transit Lounge in 2017 and is available in all good bookstores.
p.s. If you love Australian fiction and want to support local authors, buy Australian books. Read them, tell your friends about them. Talented, hard-working Australian authors will be extremely grateful.