An Australian newcomer vividly evokes a topsy-turvy world Down Under where convicts become respectable citizens, mammals lay eggs, and a seal born to a woman stirs up a rich broth of confusion.
As much a gentle satire on Australia's less-than-respectable past as an unsentimental tribute to unlikely family devotion, the story is set in Hobart, the capital of Van Diemen’s Land (today called Tasmania) during the early 19th century. It covers the months following the birth of Arthur, a seal pup, to former convict Sarah Dyer and her husband William, a dishonorably discharged soldier. Hobart is a rough, hard-drinking, rumor-ridden place populated by convicts transported from Britain, remittance men, and fortune-seekers. Almost everyone has a shady past. Reverend Kidney is actually a layman who took the job of chaplain because he was heavily in debt. His housekeeper and the town's midwife, Mrs. Jakes, is a convicted abortionist. The country surrounding Hobart is plagued by bands of outlaws who rob and plunder the farmsteads, murdering farmers and unwary travelers. When Sarah gives birth to Arthur, with Mrs. Jakes in attendance, she and elder son Ned lovingly embrace the new addition. William, a habitual drunk, is less certain. The birth is a sensation in a place hungry for novelty. The chaplain believes the baby has been sent by God; Mr. Sculley, a would-be scientist, thinks it is a Sooterkin, a mysterious hybrid creature; and the locals just want to ogle it. Sarah, a loving but practical mother, capitalizes on their curiosity by charging for a look-see. When Arthur starts singing, weak-willed William succumbs to the blandishments of an entrepreneurial doctor who offers to buy him. Loyal Ned then embarks on a dangerous and picaresque search to find his brother.
A literate and imaginative, if sometimes strained, riff on the provocative power of the unusual in a strange and distant place.