Meg Keneally may have a literary giant for a father, but her career speaks for itself. Beginning her working life as Junior Public Affairs Officer at the Australian Consulate-General in New York, she has worked as a sub-editor and freelance features writer in Dublin, as a journalist at the Daily Telegraph in Australia, as a talkback radio producer, as co-founder of a financial service public affairs company, and as a part-time Scuba instructor.
It’s little wonder then, that for her first solo foray into writing fiction, Meg was drawn to the story of Mary Bryant– a remarkable woman in her own right. Bryant (then named Mary Broad or Broand) was transported to Sydney Cove (and not Botany Bay, as her nickname would later insinuate) from Cornwall in 1787, and was one of the first successful escapees of the penal colony. Along with her husband Will, her two young children, and several others, she stole the Governor’s six-oared cutter and embarked on a sixty-six day sea voyage to Kopang (or Coepang), West Timor, then under the control of the Dutch. Bryant forms the basis for Keneally’s protagonist, who is named Jenny Trelawney. As the author explains in her afterward to the book, there is no surviving records left in Mary Bryant’s own words, as like many in her situation, she was illiterate– for this reason, while much of the book is based on real events, names have been changed. Figures in the book are still recognisable as their historical counterparts such as Bennelong, Barangaroo, Watkin Tench and Governor Arthur Phillip.
Stories of Australia’s convict origins can often be dry and devoid of the excitement of other historical fiction, faced as the characters must be with a desolate and desperate life in their new lands. While the colony itself is filled with disease, malnourishment and unsavoury behaviour among officers and prisoners alike, Keneally manages to bring moments of hope to the story, such as her subtle working of the relationship between Jenny and husband Dan Gwyn, who feels that he was tricked into marrying Jenny and that their marriage would not be recognised as a true one outside of the colony. Despite their shaky foundations, there are moments of true partnership, if not tenderness, between Jenny and Dan, and much hinges on the conflicts that arise between this proud man who feels he must assert his place as a leader in the community and his family, and the woman whose natural talents for leadership threaten to upset the masculine balance of life below the equator.
The colony’s interactions with Indigenous Australians had the potential to be seen as problematic– such as the governor’s capture of two men in an effort to ‘learn’ how they live off the land, resulting in the death of one of them, and even Jenny’s interactions with Mawberry (Barangaroo), which had the potential to turn into an Australian version of the ‘Magical Negro’ trope, as the woman turns up, teaches Jenny about herbs and leaves she can use to stave off scurvy. However, Jenny’s interactions with Mawberry grow to serve a different purpose– first in that Jenny attempts to learn from the woman, who she sees as having important knowledge that will help Jenny survive this place she is ill-equipped to understand, and second in that she sees parallels between the woman and herself (they are both pregnant when they meet). In her Author’s Note, Keneally states that she consulted with members of the Aboriginal community in her depiction of these scenes, and if some of the treatment seems barbaric, this is because the history behind it was barbaric. So far, no reviews of the book have mentioned how the reading public have reacted to these parts of the novel.
Fled is clearly the product of meticulous research and consultation, and the result is a richly drawn portrait of the life of a working class woman transported to Australia in the 18th Century, one which will fascinate those who are already interested in the period, and those who simply love a good historical read. Jenny is a strong, admirable character– tough by necessity of her situation, but still a mother, and a woman with hopes, desires, and a heart that can be broken, though a search for love is not, thank goodness, the focus of the book. In the hands of a lesser author, this story which takes place mostly in the bellies of ships and in a tiny cutter on a rough sea, might have been monotonous. Instead, Jenny Trelawney– highway woman, convict, mother, leader– is brought to life on the page and the previously masculine domain of convict history is finally given a heroine. For me personally, this book ticked all the boxes.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Fled is available now through Echo Publishing.