SS Admella was an Australian passenger steamship shipwrecked on a submerged reef off the coast of Carpenter Rocks, south west of Mount Gambier South Australia, in the early hours of Saturday 6 August 1859. Survivors clung to the wreck for over a week and many people took days to die as they glimpsed the land from the sea and watched as one rescue attempt after another failed. With the loss of 89 lives, mostly due to cold and exposure… the Admella disaster remains the greatest loss of life in the history of European settlement in South Australia. Of the 113 on board 24 survived, including only one woman, Bridget Ledwith. Wikipedia (here)
Wikipedia doesn’t mention it, but there was another survivor, an interstellar, shape-shifting alien, and Jane Rawson’s latest fantastic novel, From the Wreck (2017) is its story.
I’ve found it always difficult to review Rawson, her stories have surprises on every page, and to reveal even one is to lessen the impact. So what can I say? The action revolves around a steward on the Admella, George Hills. George is saving to marry his sweetheart, Eliza, though he wouldn’t mind some fun in the meanwhile and Bridget Ledwith, who may or may not be the woman he saw talking to the racehorses in the ship’s hold, has a nice arse.
He gets his wish, although not quite in the way he might have hoped, spends eight days locked in the arms of the woman who may have been Ledwith after the ship breaks up on the reef and the survivors huddle on deck awaiting rescue. In my recent review of Tasma’s A Sydney Sovereign I quote Tasma’s use of the word ‘anthropophagi’, it’s a word that might usefully be reprised here.
George, and of course Ledwith, are among the 24. She disappears, he is persuaded to marry Eliza. They settle in Port Adelaide, in a home for seamen, and go on to have three children, boys Henry, Georgie and Wills. The shape-shifting alien has its own point of view about what may or may not have happened over the course of the wreck and subsequently, in its own way, and only on the edge of George’s awareness, it too takes its place in George’s household.
George senses the alien’s influence, both during the shipwreck and in his new home, as a malevolent presence associated with or arising from Bridget Ledwith; advertises for Bridget Ledwith to reveal herself, but only false Bridgets reply. In the stables behind the home for seamen lives an old woman, of course a witch, with the care of her teenage daughter’s abandoned son; George applies to her to lift the curse; she cannot. Henry knows the alien best, but he is just a boy growing up, and he keeps what he knows to himself. This is the alien’s story:
On a planet, all ocean, there was a small, happy person living small and happy and quiet in her own small niche, her own small place, her own quiet space. Born, grew, lived, loved, ate. The sun, that star, shining on her one happy face.
One day they came out of the sky and her world filled up with dirt and everyone she knew died. She fought and killed and everyone else she didn’t know died and everyone who was left fled. She, they, all of them tumbled into another time, space, dimension and she fell into a new ocean in a place called earth.
Henry reveals a little of what he has learned to Mrs Gallwey, the witch-woman, and maybe back in Sydney she knew a sailor from California who had experienced some of what Henry is experiencing. The alien, lonely with just the company of a school-age boy, is excited and forms the intention of making her way to California, with or without Henry. Without, as it turns out, but her quest is interrupted mid voyage and she spends some time at the bottom of the ocean, comfortable and well-fed, but lonely, and must perforce make her way back to Port Adelaide, to Henry just getting used to being ordinary, and to George, who for a while, felt as though a spell had been lifted.
There’s a tragedy. The shape-shifting alien is not to blame, nor Henry for that matter. George drinks a lot. Bridget Ledwith makes an appearance. Much is resolved. This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, as fantastical as, but less gritty than Rawson’s debut novel, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists; nineteenth century Port Adelaide, and George and Eva’s extended family play a much bigger part than I have given any idea of here. I advise you all to buy it, and hope Jane is already working on her next. She is a remarkable talent.
Jane Rawson, From the Wreck, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2017
The official launch is on 21 March 2017 at 7.00pm at the Sun bookshop in Yarraville (more here)
I think Jane has already nominated the perfect review, Linda Godfrey at Newtown Review of Books. I’m not game to read it, for fear of discovering my mistakes, but you may. It, and a couple of others including Lisa at ANZLL’s, are linked to Jane’s post Welcome to the World, From the Wreck.