By Rohan WilsonFiction Allen & Unwin
The Roving Party
Tim Winton called Rohan Wilson’s debut novel “brutal, stark but beautiful” when he presented him with this year’s Vogel Award. Influenced by Cormac McCarthy’s violent dispossession masterpiece Blood Meridian, it deftly avoids any hint of pastiche, standing alone as a remarkably original work that dramatises a dark period of Australian history.
The Roving Party is set during the ‘Black Wars’ of Tasmania in the early 19th century. Wilson follows one roving party on a government-sanctioned mission to hunt down and subdue the region’s indigenous people, headed by none other than John Batman. He is crucially assisted by Black Bill, a black man brought up by a white family whose inherently divided loyalties in no way lessen his dedication to the looming massacre.
The Roving Party is darkly elegant, even while it is soaked in a violence that extends to imbue the very landscape with a sense of oppressive menace. It is an exciting debut from a hugely talented new author.
Factually supported by diaries and journals, Rohan Wilson’s debut novel, The Roving Party, is a harrowing account of authorised massacres in colonial Tasmania. As a freely conceived work of the imagination, its terrible beauty is its most singular achievement. Emotionally spare, Wilson’s characters - including real-life historical figure John Batman - are unpredictable players in a dramatic narrative of brutal consequences, primal habits and profound moral complexity. Wilson’s landscape is breathtakingly various and vindictive—increasingly suffering the torments it inflicts. The novel’s composite effect is to compel the contemporary reader to bear credible witness to our unimaginable past.
The Roving Party tells the story of John Batman setting out across Tasmania to track Aborigines during the 1800s. With prior knowledge of the subject matter of this book, I approached reading it with great trepidation, expecting it to be unbearably harrowing. Wilson’s restrained, almost poetic language ensures that the novel is instead haunting and evocative, even during the frequent descriptions of horrific violence and brutality.
One of the central characters, Black Bill, is fascinatingly conflicted, a free black tracker raised and educated as a white man. The author’s restraint ensures that the character’s motivations are never explicitly explored, made all the more interesting by the fact that his actions are often contradictory. He demonstrates willingness and ability to inflict casual and brutal violence, at other times taking personal risks to save the lives of others.
The Tasmanian landscape is another key element of the novel. Comprehensive and unrelenting descriptions of the wilderness and weather contribute to the novel’s ominous atmosphere.
The Roving Party is by no means an easy read, with many unanswered questions and relentless violence. However, it is a rewarding one: its images and characters stay with the reader long after completion.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist