British settlers and native Aborigines tussle over whales, disease and each other’s rights in mid-19th-century Australia.
The hero of the third novel by the Australian Scott (True Country, 1993, etc.) is Bobby Wabalanginy, a young Aborigine. His intelligence and youthful pliability make him an attractive ally to the increasing numbers of British settlers in the 1830s who are looking to establish whaling ports on Australia's southwest coast. But the alliance is uneasy: Each group suffers from a lack of immunity to the other’s illnesses, and racism is strong, particularly on the British side. Bobby bridges a few gaps by learning English, helping settlers out of scrapes and serving as a sort of right-hand-man to Dr. Cross, one of the colony’s first leaders. Inevitably, though, the detente doesn’t last: Once the kindly Dr. Cross dies, power struggles ensue among a new governor and the Aborigine tribal elders. Grimly enough, Scott's writing is at it best when there’s bloodshed: He crafts deft, exciting scenes about the visceral chaos of whaling, and a set piece in which Bobby witnesses the murder of black slaves shows how readily casual racism shifts into violence. But the book feels ungainly overall, suffering from a scruffy, episodic style that often sets particular plot changes in motion but gives them little dramatic weight. The point of view shifts often, and when the focus is Bobby, the chapters gain an even more distancing mythological sheen, making him more a symbol for the unsteadiness of British-Aborigine relations than a character in his own right. (Some scenes that place Bobby with the young daughter of the settlement's governor set up a provocative flirtation, but little is done with it.) The novel’s closing anti-rhetoric is honorable but familiar.
A few powerful scenes, but despite its research a mostly uninspiring trip to what promised to be a more dramatic era.