The good: Fascinating story based on true events.
The not-so-good: This book deserves to be read in huge chunks and sometimes I just couldn’t manage that.
Publisher: Bonnier Echo
Setting: England, Australia and the high seas
Rating: 8 out of 10
I love a good Australian historical novel and on reading the blurb of Meg Keneally’s solo debut, I couldn’t help but be tantalised. A young woman forced into a life of crime who gets caught and transported to Australia? Sign me up now. But what I didn’t know is that the main character’s fortunes are largely based on a true story which has so many twists and turns that it’s better than fiction.
Jenny Trelawney has always been a bit of an odd one, preferring fishing with her father than girlish pursuits. When her father dies, she’s forced to try to sustain the family home through whatever means necessary. She falls in with a mysterious man who introduces her to highway robbery. But he decides to up the ante and a robbery goes wrong. Jenny and her accomplices are found out and arrested. At the last minute, their punishment is changed from hanging to transportation and the long sea journey from England to Australia begins. Jenny trades in the only currency available to her and finds herself giving birth on board. On arrival, the brand-new colony is not what the convicts were expecting. But Jenny has had time to think about how to make the best of it and get away from her enemies. She and husband Dan use their expertise in fishing to feed the colony while crops fail and animals turn sickly. As the colony struggles to feed itself, Jenny knows that drastic action will have to occur if her children are to live. An escape plot is hatched to sail to the Dutch Indies, but can they make it in this hostile environment?
I enjoyed the majority of this story, with the scenes on the boat reminding me of Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves. The desperation and sense of losing contact with all that’s known are quite similar and Keneally can evoke those feelings very well. While the story of transportation was familiar in some respects, what happens after the escapees leave the colony was much more unexpected and exciting. Even though Jenny is a convicted thief (and not just for stealing a loaf of bread), I felt a lot of sympathy for the trials and losses she experienced on her way back to England. The way that Keneally describes her as a broken spirit was incredibly touching, made even more realistic as she didn’t suddenly return ‘to normal’ once back on English shores. It’s the story of an extraordinary life told with empathy balanced with adventure.
I must admit that I found the start of Fled a little slow as Jenny’s background and descent into theft is explained. Maybe it’s because I’m Australian and have read and been told these stories from primary school. It is beautifully written and Jenny is a complicated character who has been detailed well to understand her motivations. Other characters such as husband Dan and her children are similarly as detailed. Some of the other convicts I had difficulty remembering who was who (particularly in the boat when everyone was hungry and tired), but it didn’t affect my enjoyment overall. The story is well written and evokes what I imagine to be a realistic view of the time period.