by Gay Lynch
Reviewed by MICHAEL HANNAN
What does it mean to tell the stories of one’s ancestors? How do human beings endure landscapes dominated by scarcity, isolation, gruelling labour, and patriarchal cruelty? And what is the price to be paid for survival?
These questions animate Gay Lynch’s Unsettled, an historical novel focusing on a Galway family adjusting to life in south-eastern South Australia during the mid-nineteenth century. In struggling to forge a new existence on the colonial frontier, the Lynches are forced to navigate the unforgiving Australian landscape, hostile English neighbours, life-threatening diseases and injuries, the spectre of financial ruin, and an ever-niggling sense that a better life lies elsewhere. This last is felt particularly strongly by the two Lynch children who serve as the narrators. Rosanna, the headstrong eldest daughter, dreams of running away to the Victorian goldfields, while gentle Skelly, her younger brother, spends most of his time immersed in sketching rocks and fossils. As their surname suggests, the Lynches are modelled on the author’s own family; the novel is dedicated to her children and grandchildren “so that they might imagine their Lynch ancestors.”
Historical concerns are a change of pace for Lynch, whose last offering, cleanskin (2006), was a novel of manners about playgroup mothers in latter-day Port Lincoln. In that book, Lynch mined the social dynamics of pathologically bored small-towners for crackling interpersonal drama, which developed into rivalry, infidelity, and (maybe) murder. While she (eventually) demonstrates similar skills in Unsettled, sustained drama is largely sidelined in Part 1 in favour of setting the pastoral scene. Lynch relies heavily on sensual, lyrical similes: a flock of corellas, when disturbed, “[flies] up like a tossed hand of cards” (50), while morning “passes slow and steady like treacle poured from a spoon” (40) and foam “sets like chantilly around their horses’ mouths” (90). Those who live for imaginative description executed with technical finesse will find plenty here to savour.
If, on the other hand, you’re the kind of reader who sees description primarily as a means of rendering character and not an end in itself, Lynch’s prose style can veer into what Zadie Smith, in her 2008 essay “Two Paths for the Novel”, calls “lyrical realism”. In this mode, according to Smith, “only one’s own subjectivity is really authentic, and only the personal offers… [the] possibility of transcendence”. Thus, “personal things are… relentlessly aestheticized: this is how their importance is signified, and their depth”. The end result is often an onslaught of over description which “colonizes all space by way of voracious image”. Lynch can often be guilty of such imagism. A gown is never simply yellow, but “as pale yellow as early sunshine” (109). Words never just waft away; they have to “waft away on breezes sculpting the shea oaks” (181). Such, to again borrow Smith’s words, is the “anxiety of excess” where “everything must be made literary”.
For readers who find this kind of prose a bit much, the first hundred of Unsettled’s 417 pages, largely held together by verbal portraiture, is a somewhat tangled mix of events. Lynch’s unusually short chapters, some of them only two pages long, don’t initially provide a particularly cohesive reading experience. Each chapter, it seems, offers up a new, potentially intriguing situation, only to introduce an entirely new one in the next. The Lynches, we are told, have recently lost a baby. We don’t hear much about this, although it seems to be why Garrick, the grief-stricken family patriarch, slaps Rosanna, who retaliates by absconding into the bush. This is the kind of conflict which could be milked for suspense, but no; Rosanna comes straight back in the next chapter and hatches a plot to flee to the goldfields, only to be side-tracked when she accidentally lands a job with a family of wealthy English landowners. Throw in a few more subplots involving a visiting priest, a bullock found with a spear in its neck, and elder brother Edwin’s tendency to gamble away most of his money, and it’s fair to say there’s a lot going on.
This kind of constant cycling between loosely-connected narrative morsels so early in the novel, when we don’t yet know (or care) about the characters, makes it hard for any particular situation to hook the reader. We’re presented with a mosaic of the hardships (and tight-knit relationships) comprising the Lynches’ lives. Yet nothing from that mosaic is given the necessary space to help the reader invest in the characters, something that might have been achieved with longer chapters and fewer subplots. In lieu of a central narrative thread holding all the pieces together, we have Lynch’s lyrical realism converting everything in sight to image. If you’re not into that, Part 1 is tough going.
That said, things pick up in Part 2, when one of these fragments finally blooms into a compelling plotline. Through her job in The Big House, Rosanna is drawn into an affair with one of the guests, a handsome young actor from Melbourne. Any potential qualms about Lynch’s prose style are immediately made redundant; finally, we have real stakes. Secret trysts, close calls, and the constant threat of social ruin are all failsafes for weaving a suspenseful story, and the sustained human drama Lynch draws out of the relationship makes for captivating writing.
It’s also around this point that Lynch’s carefully cultivated brand of nineteenth-century Irish English comes into its own. Once Lynch’s dialogue gets more to do than simply establish her characters as Irish, there are some wonderful interactions. Take this exchange between Edwin and Skelly:
Edwin takes it [a newspaper] from him. “Skelly darling, look at this. Moffat’s Vegetable Life Medicines: for flatulence and foulness of the complexion… Shall I order some for you?”
‘Pog mo toin.’ [Irish for ‘kiss my arse’] (153).
Such a quintessentially rivalrous sibling interaction, for all its nineteenth-century points of reference, could have taken place yesterday. It’s a four-line demonstration of how closely the best historical fiction can mirror the present, and an indicator of how easy it is to find contemporary concerns in the societies of long ago.
One particularly relevant concern for Unsettled is modern Australia’s ongoing reckoning with the colonial violence conducted against Indigenous people during the novel’s time period. One consequent literary corollary of this reckoning has been the question of how (or even if) non-Indigenous novelists should engage with these atrocities, as well as how they might represent Indigenous Australian characters in their work. Much of Lynch’s engagement with these debates comes via the character of Moorecke, a Booandik girl of Rosanna’s age from a nearby station; the two girls are presented as fast friends. While it’s not for someone like me to critique whether Lynch gets Moorecke ‘right’, there’s no doubt she endows her with considerable humanity, thanks largely to Moorecke’s irrepressible personality. Despite Rosanna’s entreaties, she cheerfully trespasses on the English settlers’ (read: her) land as she pleases, kills their livestock, and steals their clothes to dance around in “like a brolga displaying its wings” (137). Moorecke is substantially more than a prop for the white characters, and challenges the flat, highly stereotyped representations of Indigenous people of which white writers have historically been guilty. Lynch is also smart enough not to narrate directly through Moorecke; such a step would be for Indigenous writers, and Indigenous writers alone, to take.
Interestingly, Lynch depicts relations between the Galway Lynches and the Booandik people as largely cordial. I admit to being initially surprised at the friendliness of this relationship, although I have no personal knowledge of whether or not Lynch’s portrayal of these relations passes historical muster. (The English landowners, by contrast, pursue the Booandik people more than once with intent to kill.) It should be noted that in the acknowledgments, Lynch namechecks contemporary Booandik custodians and linguists who have provided her with information about Country and even proofread early drafts of the novel. This collaborative spirit suggests a preferred path forward for future settler writers who attempt to write about the brutality in Australia’s colonial past in an ethical manner.
The approach taken to such a worryingly sensitive issue once again reflects Lynch’s chief preoccupations: the enduring power of ancestry, and the capacity of human beings to survive against all odds in environments filled with forces determined to erase their existence. Unsettled is a defiant riposte to such attempts, honouring the hardship and sacrifice of those who came before by creating a family whose members linger in the imagination long after the final page is turned.
Lynch, G 2006, cleanskin, Wakefield Press, Adelaide.
Smith, Z 2008, ‘Two Paths for the Novel’, The New York Review of Books, November 20, vol. 55, no. 18, <https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2008/11/20/two-paths-for-the-novel/>.
MICHAEL HANNAN is a PhD candidate and tutor in English literature at the University of Wollongong, Australia. His research interests include contemporary British literature and narrative theory. He has written for artsHub, Express Media, FORUM, Mascara Literary Review, and TEXT.