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Wild Island (Jennifer Livett, A&U)

Jennifer Livett’s first novel interweaves Tasmanian colonial history with the untold periphery of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, assuming background knowledge of neither (though the reader is certainly rewarded by familiarity with both). Narrators Charles O’Hara Booth (Commandant at Port Arthur when Sir John Franklin becomes Governor) and Harriet Adair (carer to Mrs Anna Rochester—Brontë’s ‘Bertha’, in this version brought to the penal colony with her husband in search of his missing brother Rowland) chart the years when the Rochesters’ lives intersect with the nascent sociopolitical world of Van Diemens Land: a settlement ‘peopled only with convicts, eccentrics and misfits’. While the search for Rowland forms a faint backdrop, the narrative reads like a charismatic diary, painting a sweeping yet domestic landscape of this early settlement, hinting at themes from the ethics of punishment/reform to love and loss. Fictional and historical figures alike are treated with integrity and poetic attention to detail. The novel is peopled with a ceaseless parade of incidental characters, whose (mis)fortunes construct the intricate and intimate social minutiae of shipboard and colonial life. Wild Island will sit alongside similar reimaginings of this particular historical period, including Richard Flanagan’s Wanting and Lindsay Simpson’s The Curer of Souls, and is a rich, satisfying (if lengthy and sometimes overcrowded) read.

Anica Boulanger-Mashberg is an editor, writer and bookseller at the Hobart Bookshop


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