A dubious character experiences a shattering change of heart during his specimen-collecting expedition to Australia, in a vivid historical novel by a renowned British poet.
Blamed for the suicide of a young boy and hounded out of his home by a mob, Charles Redbourne, the well-born but spendthrift hero of Poster’s second work of fiction (Courting Shadows, 2008), is something of a lost soul in search of redemption. And he will find it at the end of the nightmarish trip he makes to the Antipodes, escaping his past while pursuing his inclination to become a naturalist. Although his host in Sydney, Edward Vane, offers hospitality, he too is a questionable figure, whose relationship with his headstrong, artistic daughter Eleanor seems violent, possibly abusive. Despite his earlier interest in boys, Redbourne is drawn to Eleanor, whose attunement to the land, its spirit and wildlife argues for a sustainable, noninterventionist relationship, unlike Redbourne’s, whose specimen-hunting is done with a gun. Matters become more polarized when Redbourne leaves on his expedition into the hinterland, in the company of brutal Bullen and a half-aboriginal boy, Billy. Trapped between Bullen’s cruelty and Billy’s ancestral sensitivity, Redbourne barely survives and returns a different man. Poster’s storytelling is notably fresh and pacey, and his characters have definition, even if they are often emblematic. Redbourne and Eleanor will leave Australia together, but their future is far from certain.
Edgy, intense and engrossing work that delivers lessons astutely.