Van Diemen’s Land, 1826.
When Bridget Crack arrives in the colony, she is just grateful to be on dry land. But finding the life of an indentured domestic servant intolerable, she pushes back and is punished for her insubordination-sent from one place to another, each significantly worse than the last. Too late, she realises the place she has ended up is the worst of all: the ‘Interior,’ where the hard cases are sent-a brutally hard life with a cruel master, miles from civilisation.
She runs from there and finds herself imprisoned by the impenetrable Tasmanian wilderness. What she finds there-what finds her-is Matt Sheedy, a man on the run, who saves her from certain death. Her precarious existence among volatile and murderous bushrangers is a different kind of hell and, surrounded by roaring rivers and towering columns of rock, hunted by soldiers and at the mercy of killers, Bridget finds herself in an impossible situation. In the face of terrible darkness, what will she have to do to survive?
A gripping and moving story of a woman’s struggle for survival in a beautiful and brutal landscape, Bridget Crack is a unique and deeply accomplished novel by a rare talent.
I’m still finding it quite hard to believe that Bridget Crack is Rachel Leary’s first novel. She’s no stranger to writing, having had a number of short stories and essays published, but even so, I was not prepared for such a stunning read from the hands of a debut author.
Bridget Crack is historical fiction written in literary prose, which makes it my favourite type of novel to read. There’s something about historical fiction combining with literary fiction that just seems so right to me, especially in novels dealing with harsh themes set in the natural environment.
‘The tea-coloured river roared through the forest. A waterfall ran down over rocks like stairs, a wash of white. Sunlight leaked through the canopy and down into the water, where it dazzled the rocks at the bottom of a pool.’
The vivid imagery; just gorgeous. To my delight, this novel was filled with such glorious prose, bringing this era and setting to life in a manner I have only rarely come by. It was reminiscent to me of Charles Frazier, particularly his Cold Mountain, a stand out novel that remains a favourite of mine even ten years after first reading it. There were shades of Alex Miller’s Coal Creek as well. The simplistic beauty of the writing giving way to a deep truth on the subject matter, a common thread throughout each of these novels.
Above her a white cloud broke apart, bits of it drifting away from each other. Killing itself into pieces. Killing itself into pieces to be free.’
This is a harsh novel. Harsh characters, living in a harsh manner, in a harsh environment. It’s like a testimony of truth; colonial life in Van Diemen’s Land, the way it really was. Forget any romanticised notions you might have of this era. Bush Rangers were not handsome heroes fighting some Robin Hood war; they were dangerous, filthy, rogue, and desperate, out for themselves and only in a gang out of necessity. Convicts were not bound for a new life; they were whipped, sold, jailed for the merest infringement, regularly raped if you were a woman, hung if you were a man. And if you were Aboriginal? You were in the way, trouble to eradicate. Life was not even all that great for the free settlers. Only the most hardy survived, the corrupt and the lucky. At the time in which this novel was set, 1826, tensions were crackling throughout this colony. It lacked the infrastructure to accomodate its expanding population and lacked the accessibility into the formidable interior terrain for it to be ultimately conquered.
Bridget Crack is an escaped convict who gets lost in the wilderness within hours of running away. She is rescued by a bush ranger named Matt Sheedy, who runs with three other bush rangers, all of them dangerous with bounties on their heads. Matt protects Bridget from the outset, but it quickly becomes apparent that he’s protecting her so he can have her for himself. He’s a complex character, Matt Sheedy. On the one hand, quite honourable. He won’t allow violence against Aboriginals, animals, children, or women. But as time progresses and their situation becomes more dire, Matt’s grip on his rage starts to slip, he becomes more desperate and less able to see an escape from the colony for them, so his treatment of Bridget deteriorates. There’s not a lot of dialogue within this novel, Bridget hardly ever talks, but it’s all of the ‘unsaid’ that makes the greatest impact. Likewise with the inferred actions; the lack of explicit descriptions had enormous impact. When on occasion there was explicit action, you were all the more shocked for it because it hadn’t been overdone.
The Tasmanian wilderness proved to be as much of a character within this novel as the actual people. It both protected and harmed Bridget and her bush rangers; it was unforgiving, yet allowed a person to disappear into its embrace right when they needed to. This was a time when Thylacines still roamed the forest; when Devils screeched through the night and would attempt to eat you if you laid still long enough for them to try. Rivers and endless rain and mud; leeches filling your boots; hollowed out trees so large the inside of their trunks were big enough to fit four people and their stolen booty. It was a place where people could disappear for years or die within days. And on account of Rachel’s vivid prose, you could imagine it all so perfectly.
I felt quite absorbed by Bridget Crack. I could barely put the novel down. She was a tough young woman; a survivor and a warrior. I feel this novel is possibly an account of all the women who arrived on the shores of Van Diemen’s Land and decided they were not going to bow down and take it anymore.
Thanks is extended to Allen and Unwin for providing me with a copy of Bridget Crack for review.
Bridget Crack is book 47 in my 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.