Wilson’s debut is a grim and bloody tone poem that follows the historical figure John Batman and a motley assemblage of men through the Tasmanian bush as they hunt Aborigines in 1829.
The group consists of four raggedy white convicts, two “Parramatta men”—natives from the Australian mainland who serve as trackers—and Black Bill, the arguable protagonist, a Tasmanian Aborigine. Black Bill, we are told, was raised by a white man, but he retains knowledge of clan language and ways and the ability to survive in the bush. The men of the roving party seek to trade “blacks” for government money or land grants, and their prized goal is Manalargena, a crafty leader and “witch,” powerful within his clan. But most of the book is given to roving, roving for days and days. The prose is highly descriptive, but adjectives often seem chosen to maximize gloominess rather than provide a clear picture, and readers in the U.S. may have trouble envisioning landscapes covered in a litany of unfamiliar flora. One thing is clear: The roving party is consistently cold, wet, hungry and underequipped. Moral questions are largely suspended, though there is no sense of glory in the proceedings. Batman has an almost charming unapologetic quality, interested merely in the task at hand, neither its inventor nor opponent. Black Bill is more mercurial; it is difficult and intriguing to parse out his loyalties, and the question is mostly left up to the reader’s imagination. When the roving party does come into contact with clanspeople, the action is messy and horrifying. Wilson gives special, gruesome attention to the massacre of dogs.
For neither the faint of heart nor those who prefer strong plots, Wilson’s work will nonetheless gratify fans of more bleak and rugged times.