Men have returned from the Great War to hard times and meagre living, many out on worthless, waterless selections with ‘a few skinny cows’. At the dawn of the Australian twentieth century, Jessie is on the run. She has done a dreadful, unspeakable thing, but before she can flee she must bury the evidence – part of herself. But then, she has always done that.
Inspired by the life of Jessie Hickman, legendary twentieth-century bushranger, The Burial tells the story of a more desperate ‘drover’s wife’, one whose life is in much greater peril than the threat of a mere snake loose in the kitchen.
In the midst of bludgeoning Fitz, her brutal ‘husband’, Jessie goes into labour. He lies on the floor slowly dying; she gives premature birth to his baby. From here, the narrative unfolds from the point of view of the child, who narrates first in close, heady proximity to its mother’s body, and then, when finally separated from her and pushed down into the earth, as an omniscience that knows and feels everything its mother experiences, and everything in her past as well as that of the rest of the characters. Magically, Collins’s mastery of narrative voice makes this seem completely plausible.
Gradually, we learn that Jessie had been criminalised and, on release from prison, was assigned (read sold) to Fitz, a hard man who beats, blackmails and rapes her repeatedly. Sure, it sounds like the same old story, and it is, but it’s all in the telling and that is what this book does so inventively, and with such dark humour and beautifully polished prose.
The child peels back layer after layer of Jessie’s past selves to get to the true creature she is. Part real, and part imagined by the novel’s male characters, Jessie is a force of nature. She is adaptive, resourceful, and best of all, active – reminiscent of Sybilla in My Brilliant Career but without the yearning for something ‘more’. Jessie’s desire is much more concrete – she just wants to live.
There is nothing stereotyped or simplistic about any of the characters in this novel. All ring true, all have depth and inner conflict. Perhaps it’s because the child hasn’t lost its memory of having been briefly human that it can understand its father, brute that he was to Jessie. The child imagines him as an innocent abroad, looking for love when none is forthcoming, who yearns for softness but finds only Jessie’s steely resistance, hard as the country he’d beaten into submission.
Jack Brown is Jessie’s would-be lover who, like some deluded courtly knight, imagines himself coming to Jessie’s rescue. He dreams of confronting Fitz and taking her away with him, but he is saved from ever finding out if he has the guts for it. Instead, Jessie acts. It is great to read a book in which the female character is not passive, not a victim, and not just colour and movement with tits and arse and a heart of gold.
There are surprising passages of great beauty in the most unlikely places. For example, in the treatment of Jack Brown’s first taste of heroin with Sergeant Barlow, the city copper with a pain-induced addiction and a secret self. He was once Bandy Arrow, the child who attached himself to Jessie when she rode in the circus as a young girl. Barlow’s spine-crushing fall from the trapeze separates him from her and all his life has been a quest to find her. He and Jack Brown, copper and black tracker, set out in search of her. A love triangle – of sorts.
The novel is populated with lost children – Bandy Arrow, Jessie and her own premature baby – lost but innocent souls. When Jessie becomes ‘Wendy’ to an enclave of lost children on the mountain where they find sanctuary from a venal, predatory world below, she finally finds comfort and belonging among them in their isolation, but we know it can’t last – there is a price on her head, and the men are coming for her.
The language of the book is brilliant, with an interesting tautness to the syntax, and a quirky formality of expression. It is as if the language the child is born with is already perfectly formed, and has not had the chance to become corrupted by age and world-weariness. It felt like reading Roger McDonald’s Mr Darwin’s Shooter, which so effectively employs a faux ninteenth-century voice. The child voice is pristine, free of accent and its idiosyncrasies, which gives it a timeless and ethereal quality.
The Burial is artfully structured and from the outset, the reader knows she’s in good hands and will not be let down. There is no such thing as human nature; there is environment and adaptation. And that is what story is about – the passage from one state to another, the journey from one state of being, though conflict, to the next. With each incident, each complicating event, the protagonist learns to adapt or flee. The pursuit of Jessie is the rocket fuel that propels the novel’s arc of drama, and her resourcefulness and steely determination to survive is the fire in its belly.
I first read this novel in manuscript, and wrote a reader’s report on it before it was sold in to publishers (I know, it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it!). The Burial is the kind of literary work that makes an ex-agent wish to be back in the saddle; the kind of book you’d trawl the slush pile for – so perfect, so completely realised and executed and so polished, that all the energy of the 10 000 hours it takes to make such a work of art seems to set the page on fire. Collins will kidnap you and hold you hostage till you arrive breathless at The Burial’s brilliant liberating conclusion.
At the end of my report, I confidently claimed that this book would be a prize-winner; it’s the kind of novel I feel compelled to shout about from rooftops: ‘Love this book!’
Courtney Collins The Burial, Allen & Unwin, 2012, PB, 291pp, $27.99
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