The second novel from Australian writer Wilson, whose debut (The Roving Party, 2014) won literary prizes and comparisons to Cormac McCarthy, offers another stylish—if familiar—contribution to the literature of lyric violence.
Tasmania in 1874 is a combination of bedlam and Hieronymus Bosch, peopled with sots, convicts, derelicts, opportunists, and hard cases of every kind. The town of Launceston is a remote and lawless outpost of this remote and lawless outpost. At the novel's beginning, a middle-aged mother in the town dies, leaving her 12-year-old son to the tender unmercies of the local constabulary and a "charitable" man named Stewart who exposes himself to hungry children as the price of his generosity. The boy dispatches a letter to his father, Thomas Toosey, a reformed drunk who was convicted of infanticide and sent off years earlier. The elder Toosey, a ruffian among ruffians, embarks on a desperate journey to save his son. He is pursued at every step by a vengeance-bent Irishman named Fitheal Flynn and Flynn's silent, mysterious hooded companion, who goes by the name of the legendary hangman Ketch. As Toosey arrives in Launceston after years of exile, with Flynn and Ketch close behind, a brutal street riot breaks out over an unjust railroad levy, and violence begets violence begets violence. In thinking of American analogues, one is reminded less of McCarthy and more of writers like Tom Franklin and Donald Ray Pollock, but the book lacks the dark, ribald humor of Pollock and the interest in tangled racial history behind a novel like Franklin's Hell at the Breech.
Still, this is a fast-paced, hard-nosed fable about revenge, pursuit, and the search for a moral compass in a place where chaos and rage and injustice set every dial wildly aquiver.