By Rohan WilsonFiction Allen & Unwin
To Name Those Lost
Rohan Wilson’s Vogel Prize-winning debut novel, The Roving Party, earned comparisons to Cormac McCarthy’s frontier novels of the American west for its bloody violence, hard masculinity and rich, poetic prose. This towering influence is evident yet again in To Name Those Lost, which returns to nineteenth-century Tasmania.
Described as a ‘sequel of sorts’ to his debut, this novel takes place in a seemingly more civilised Launceston (on the surface, at least). But while laws are now in place and the governing class prospers, the former convicts who make up the town’s vast underclass are teetering on the brink of anarchy. Black War veteran Thomas Toosey returns to search for the (now motherless) son he abandoned many years ago. He is desperate to find his son amid the looting and destruction, but at every turn he is confronted by the Irish transportee Fitheal Flynn and his companion, the hooded man, to whom Toosey owes a debt that he must repay.
To Name Those Lost is the story of a father’s journey. Wilson has an eye for the dirt, the hardness, the sheer dog-eat-doggedness of the lives of the poor. Human nature is revealed in all its horror and beauty as Thomas Toosey struggles with the good and the vile in himself and learns what he holds important.
‘Wilson remains a gifted translator of historical detail into fictional terms,’ writes Geordie Williamson in the Australian. ‘The ripe idiomatic language of the day is reproduced in such a way as to seem real without being anachronistic. Likewise, the sensory world he summons up, boozy and pungent, makes the present feel boringly sanitised.’
Rohan Wilson’s second novel returns to Tasmania’s violent past. It is a tale of revenge and hopeless, almost comic, tragedy. The novel follows the journey of Thomas Toosey. Toosey, who was first seen as a boy in Wilson’s first novel The Roving Party, is now a wild and murderous old man, on a quest to reunite with his son. Toosey, in turn, is being trailed by his nemesis Fineal Flynn, a man consumed with the desire for vengeance. This game of cat and mouse plays out against the backdrop of the Launceston Riots of 1874 and its attendant lawlessness and poverty. The writing is compelling and vivid, the use of language superb, and Wilson skillfully weaves the narrative through fiction and history to its awful conclusion.
In the early evening dark among the man ferns of the damp hill’s foreslope Toosey unbundled his bedroll and sat watching his backtrack and waiting. He built no fire and took no tea but sat on the blankets peeling a turnip with his knife, passing slices to his lips. A bone-splinter moon rose wondrous within the overspread of stars, the dark below the gums deepening into blue and then black, but still no one appeared upon the slope. Had he eluded them? There was no way to know. He shaved a long shining slice, curved like the very moon above, and ate.
When it was full dark he unwound some wire snares from his coat pocket and spread them on his swagroll. Wallaby runs cut here and there through the brush and he walked out and planted stakes and hung the snares with a four-inch loop across the hollows. He made his bed by a ridge where the warmth of the day gave off the stone and where he was hidden as if in a pair of jaws. He settled back and after a time he pulled a crumpled envelope from his pocket. It was addressed to him, care of the Deloraine post office. He slipped the paper out and unfolded it. There wasn’t moon enough to read but he knew it by heart.
My deer Mother is dead. I have been turned out of Home. I have nothing at all Deer Father I wish you wood come back. There is no home for me with out you. I have only You in the hole world to love. I hope You will stow this letter safly as a tresher of my faith in You your loyal Son. He lay listening to the night and charting out the matter of finding his boy in that dog-poor town. Below the canopy the shrieking of possums, the falling and breaking of sticks. It was easy to imagine someone spilling out of the bush for him, yet as he looked about there was only the dark. A night sown with stars. He laid back and watched the moon loll onward into the void. He clutched that letter and kissed it.
Come dawn he stowed his bedding and walked out to pull the snares. In one a potteroo gone cold and wooden. He stuffed it inside his billytin for eating later. Having cleared the wires, he picked a path further west for country he had crossed in the winter, country that he knew in some manner. He descended down the rainforested slope where stringybarks grew tall and full of sun like gargantuan flowers, stopping to study the bush behind him, listening for voices. The low-down dawn light burning his eyes, he crossed a creeklet and mounting the far bank he scared up a host of crayfish that scuttled away to chimneys pitting the soil, and soon the relic rainforest lessened. He left the incline and within a mile the scrub thinned and then, on a sudden, he was standing on a plain of tufted grass that covered the land away to the bluffs. He followed the scrub’s edge where there was cover, bent under his load of swag, the billytin in his fingers rattling and him setting a mad pace.
His first sight of the island as a child of fourteen sent out for thieving two overcoats in the winter of 1827 was the sandstone buildings studding the hill above the harbour in Hobart town and when they brought him above decks of the Woodford in iron fetters and set him aboard a longboat for the shore he’d thought Hobart a pissing version of his own Blackpool, the inlaying of warehouse masonry much like the stores on Talbot Road, the stark shapes of houses near the same, but then the winter mist parted from the mountain peak above and he knew he was in venerable country, as old as rock, and it wasn’t long before he became indentured to the frontiersman John Batman who ran a trade in victualling the army, and here the boy Thomas learned how the island’s wilder parts truly belonged to the tribal blacks, a displaced people taking refuge in the hills, and for a government bounty and to secure his land this frontiersman meant to hunt them by whatever means just or unjust, bloody or brave, and he marshalled a party of transportees and black trackers and put into the scrub armed for war and war it was, a bloody war, in which all hands were soiled and Thomas’s no less than another’s for a killer now he was, an easy killer, and yet while he was diminished by it, made less in God’s eyes and his own, he saw in the bullet, the knife, and the club a power that could make a man his own master.
In the early afternoon he climbed a hillock and lay flat to scan the terrain he had crossed. He removed his hat and held it before the sun to shade his eyes. He could see over the backhills and grasslands he had recently quit and he could see kangaroo mobs and feel their pounding through the earth and see a small flock of rosellas dipping and swinging and making horrible cries. The sun caused his eyes to water, which he wiped on his sleeve and it was then, as he was dabbing, that he saw a flash of white in the far-off scrub. The trees leaned, worked on by a current. He watched and waited, finger halfway to his face. In the bloom of the full sun his eyes teared. Nothing but the wind, the trees ajig, his own track left snake-like through the grass. An uneasy feeling remained lodged in his abdomen as he humped up his gear and left.
On the hard walk down the hill he produced the pocketbook, untied it and thumbed through the banknotes. They were stamped with the Launceston Bank for Savings insignia in fine blue ink and he considered this as he tracked out through a copse of long-ago burnt gums that wore a green fur of regrowth. He counted the notes, retied the cord, and tucked the pocketbook into his coat. Late in the day he forded a knee-deep creek, scrabbled up through ferns on the far side into the land beyond with the horizon light in his eyes, blunt light sheared by cloud, sheared by the whitish trees. Soon he passed that country through and came upon the railway that had been his destination.
He stood gazing left and right along the rails. They split clear through the brush on a bed of blue metal, drawing away to a point in the infinite distance. He dropped his swag and kneeled in the ballast and pressed his hand to the iron. He sat for a moment with it so and then he bent down and rested his cheeks against the bullhead. There was no pulse that he could discern, no movement, and so he stood and looked again along it. The sun was falling into the hills and throwing a thin wafting light over the forest. He resettled his bedroll and made easterly along the clearway beside the line.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist