by Sarah Drummond
(a book review)
Good writing is every bit as instant as good music. The measure of both as much about how quickly and how far the work sends me off into my thoughts as it is appreciating the sheer quality of the composition. Just as a few bars of the right music can trigger an explosion of emotionally charged insight, a single paragraph can transport me to places it may take minutes to come back from.
I’m a slow reader of good books because of it.
Some time ago on social media the subject of Albany and its place in time came up. It was a conversation tied in with another about the low key, low profile nature of the town and another again, about broadcaster Eoin Cameron and writers Tim Winton and Kim Scott. The gist of it being that despite pockets of success, after all these years Albany still wrestles with the weight of inertia, as if were still waiting to find its true identity, its ideal purpose, that thing able to motivate it to go on and become the best of itself.
I offered to that conversation an imagined future of the place as an arts and academic stronghold, an atmospheric and popular seaside university town to which people from all over Australia made their way to teach and study. The vision was postulated as if the town was emerging from a destructive youth, damaged but coming awake and conscious, aware of itself and how different things could be. The idea put forward as if it had decided on positive action, squaring up to the future by backing every ounce of its worth.
Local writer Sarah Drummond’s first novel, The Sound, represents that focus and much longed for release of potential. It stares into and stirs the dark waters of Albany’s immediate pre-history, resolving to tell a harsh and uncomfortable truth.
A fictional recreation of the events surrounding the arrival of the brig Amity into Princess Royal Harbour late in December 1826, it isn’t concerned with anything so meagre as the granduer of men in uniform, the ceremonial planting of a flag or firing of a cannon in the name of King and empire. Nor convictism. Drummond’s subject is the Breaksea Island sealing gangs. The story of a girl and another young woman who came to be rescued from the clutches of an abuser on nearby Eclispse Island. Necessarily, Drummond is concerned with the illiterate, the impoverished and despised, the used, abused, bullied and brutalised, along with the murderous leadership which controlled them.
Drummond has written a beautiful story of the South Coast’s terrible beginnings.
Having spent my youth in Albany, the most formative part of it anyway, I still cant separate the kid I was then from who I am now. Even though I’m into my Fifties, I’m still striving for something I feel I lost, or never gained, when I was that troubled South Coast youngster. Through the lens of my own experience I also still see the town of my upbringing as post-youth, a place over it’s crazy, misspent adolescence and into a lengthy period of steadying and reflection. A town apparently locked into some kind of dormancy, on the surface of things not doing much, just getting by, passing the days doing its best to keep up appearances, trying to stay clean and sober.
My interest in Albany’s history is personal and pervasive, so I’m up for the down and the dirty. For some, excavating the past means picking at the scabs and scratching at the scars, digging beneath the garments to expose those windless fetid cavities. Uncovering the long buried and put-out-of-sight and airing them, notwithstanding the grimaces of the lookers on, is part of the awakening process. Part of the acknowledgment, the confession.
It takes a certain kind of character to want to tell a dark tale, and a certain kind of author to successfully carry it off. Drummond is both these things. That she is woman, perhaps, makes the acheivement more special again. In my experience, this kind of fiction isn’t usually put forward by female writers.
Her contribution is timely and there’s more to come too, for we are in something of a golden age for local history appreciation. Of both the popular and more formal styles. Since Kim Scott was compelled into penning his Myles Franklin Award winning Benang! (From the Heart) he has contributed much to the discussion on local Aboriginal history, especially through That Deadman Dance, his second Franklin winner, which was loosely centered around Albany and the story of Wylie and Edward John Eyre. Two of Tim Winton’s books, The Turning and Breath, have contemporary settings but are nonetheless rooted in the same basic conversation, that of setting down in story the misdeeds of ourselves and others so as to make sense of them at a later date. In recent times academics Tiffany Shellam and Murray Arnold have made major contributions to local historical analysis as well, both of which make very solid platforms which I have incorporated into and nestled my own knowledge base upon. Gwen Chessel is another, though like myself is domiciled elsewhere.
We are in a period of deep reflection and revision at present, building in to our sense of history the missing Indigenous and working-class dimensions. Donald Garden’s and Merle Bignell’s commendable but vain-glorious 1970’s commisioned histories will remain benchmarks of a kind but are fundamentally incomplete. However, output of the bookish kind has adapted and increased in recent times, and been added to by the unofficial but impressively subscribed-to social media pages Lost Albany and Historic Albany. All of this, over the long haul, will stimulate interest, inspire greater university enrollment in history related subjects and, ultimately, further again our understanding of the past; how it really was that the South Coast was settled and came to be as it is today.
Through completion of Sarah Drummond’s The Sound, a story in the literary vein of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Rohan Wilson’s The Roving Party, I think we may have uncovered a building block in the psyche of stagnant Albany. Through it we have relocated a chunk of the forcibly discarded, the buried and forgotten. Through The Sound we now have a pathway to the supressed, access to the mother nueroses which helped send our town into its long, long sleep.
Only through such reconstructions, the like of which Sarah Drummond has conjured, can places and their people come to know themselves and get better. As a place, as a town, as a region, all that was done in the name of survival along the South Coast was started with the story of two cast-away sealing gangs who happened to come together on Breaksea Island in King George Sound around the same time as Major Lockyer and his garrison sailed in, (worried into action by the presence of a French naval ship), one-hundred-and-ninety-one years ago.
Albany, by West Australian standards, is an old town. The very eldest in fact, and has made itself at home with that now. But it remains a thing with many people, the desire to retain a sense of youth, to see someone come of age where they haven’t already. When I see it I have this want to involve myself in unfolding potential. I want to make myself known to it, I want to influence it, even if just in a tiny one-off way. Acts of personal redemption perhaps, something to try and help myself keep edging forward. A simple thing in the life of a single individual, but rather more powerful when acted upon in unison.
This is the power of literature, the reason people are compelled to write and tell stories. Like dreams, the telling of stories helps us process our actions, helps us carry out what it is we need to do and then to deal with the consequences, especially on the occasion those actions are wrongly conceived. Historical stories help us come to terms with who we are and all that we’ve done. Literature makes bedrock of those deeds, it allows us to revise and reassess as we move forward, to make adjustments, to correct what needs correcting and to accept and forgive, rather than bury, where acceptance and forgiveness can be found.
Sarah Drummond’s The Sound, well apart from the stunning workmanship which underpins it, makes giant contribution to the story of settlement along Western Australia’s South Coast and for this reason enters the local, state and national canons where it shall forever stay.
Unlike Sarah’s first book, Salt Story, The Sound hasn’t yet found itself nominated for any awards. Though widely and generally impressively reviewed it has also attracted criticism for keeping too strictly to the actual historical narrative. This is because Drummond eschewed that old chestnut never let the truth get in the way of a good story in favour of adhering to the guidelines of her university doctorate (at least as far as she could). That’s right, The Sound, rather than all-out assault on literary stardom, is a PhD thesis. The author was obliged to work to a set of rules.
I’m disappointed it’s been overlooked but remain philosophical about it’s future. I think in time The Sound may come to be recognised as a classic. In a previous post I described Sarah as a literary artist, an impression largely generated by what she sets down in her blog A Winedark Sea. Her language is finely crafted. She may be talented too but she’s very practised. Sarah Drummond is not just a writer, she’s a fully committed artist. She isn’t writing for money or recognition. She’s working, documenting her life in a disciplined but yet unfettered way, addressing her circumstances and experience in her own unique manner. Like I said, it takes a certain type of character to take on a subject as abject as the misadventure of a 19th Century southern Australian sealing gang, and another to pull it off. Drummond is rare and different and very, very good with words.
The stand-out feature of The Sound is the writing. You cannot come away from the read without feeling you’ve actually journeyed along the coast in a crowded open-boat stuffed full of people, dogs, provisions and equipment, along with the protagonists booty itself, salted down sealskins. The seascape is not just visible but audible, palpable even. As we follow the progress of one of the misfit sealing gangs from Cape Arid to King George Sound we are treated to a visceral being-at-sea and about-the-islands experience. I can’t speak highly enough about this apsect of the novel. Had she not been so compelled to bring peripheral characters and events, complete with names and actual transcribed elements, which jarred at key moments, into the story and instead found a way to keep the seamless nature of the tale in tact -which she manages for the great majority- we could easily be talking about nominations, short lists and even actual awards themselves.
No bones about it, Drummond is that good.
Another criticism, perhaps, is that because there are so many characters, we don’t get to identify strongly enough with the story’s central figure Wiremu Heke, a Maori warrior from Otakau on the South Island. Wiremu, better known as William Hook or Billhook, opens and closes the narrative in the first person. Between times Drummond adopts a conventional third person voice. I felt at certain points Billhook’s tale was distracted by peripheral circumstances but what actually transpires is that Drummond is building the story of the gang’s individuals and their journey. Billhooks’s motives and redeeming qualities could not have been revealed without us knowing who the others in the boat with him were; particulary the women, and the gruelling experience they were forced to endure.
The other truly remarkable aspect of this story which, along with the descriptive prose, will preserve it in the memory of most readers, is the combination of brutality, misery, tenderness and beauty Drummond instils in her characters. Bear in mind, these are men and women of vastly differing cultural backgrounds abandoned in an open-boat along a dangerous but yet startlingly magnificent coastline populated only by wildlife and small family sized groups of Aborigines. The gang has nothing but the clothes on their backs, a few knives and cutlasses, a couple of pistols, muskets and a bag or two of powder. Beyond a few sacks of basic provisions which soon run out they have to fend for themselves. This is not a pleasant story and there is no comfort. Even when Samuel Bailey, one of the more unsavoury characters, kidnaps an Aboriginal girl from the mainland and is revealed a sadistic peadophile, Drummond doesn’t shirk what it takes to make him real.
This is what I mean by Drummond being a thoroughly committed artist and this book eventually being recognised as an outstanding product of her endeavours. The Sound is redemptive but not a feel good story, which is why I draw the Cormac McCarthy comparison. There is cold and wet and pain and damage on nearly every page, but yet there is comeraderie, tenderness, hope and beauty too. What Sarah Drummond has done with The Sound is bring back into being the memory of a series of terrible events which occurred along Australia’s southern litteral, more specifically the South Coast between Esperance and Albany, immediately prior to the commencement of settlement at King George Sound. And she does it in as accurate terms as I think anyone is possibly capable. Her great acheivement being the acknowledgement and laying to rest of a handful of lost souls, half of them women, one just a little girl. In that sense, The Sound is ecclesiastic, a heartfelt eulogy to the disregarded who simultaneously plundered and foundered upon the town of Albany’s home shores.
Sarah Drummond’s contibution to the South Coast’s still infant historical literature canon isn’t just an accurate and beautifully rendered portrait of savagery, misery and survival. It’s true and lasting value lies in its birth, or rebirth, the fact that it now exists. By drawing from the archives and piecing together the story of Lockyer’s Pirates by way of research and then imagining that story as an actual experience, ultimately rendering it in full colour and extraordinary detail as a fully formed novel, gifts us a reclaimed memory, material we can reabsorb, acknowledge and accept. Material we can safely add to our collective identity and use to make ourselves better, stronger.
That is the job of the artist as historian and she has done it very well.
For a full historical account of the sealers featured in The Sound go to Campbell Taylor and the Cape Arid Connection –Part 3 (a) and Part 3 (b). For the story of Black Jack Anderson, Bob Gamble and John Bailey Pavey, sealers who settled at Albany post Lockyer and the garrison, go to Campbell Taylor and the Cape Arid Connection- Part 3 (c).
Links to other reviews:
Music The Sound is reminiscent of.
Nina Simone: Aint got no, I got life
Johnny Cash: Hurt
Rolling Stones: Brown Sugar
The Clash: White Riot
Janis Joplin: Ball and Chain
George Michael: Father Figure
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: The Weeping Song
The Pogues: Misty Morning Albert Bridge
Green Day: Time of Your Life
The Velvet Underground: She’s a Femme Fatale
Albany writer Sarah Drummond’s first novel, The Sound, stares into and stirs the dark waters of the town’s immediate pre-history, resolving to tell a harsh and uncomfortable truth. Her subject is the Breaksea Island sealing gangs, the 19th Century story of a girl and another young Aboriginal woman who came to be rescued from the clutches of an abuser on nearby Eclispse Island. Necessarily, the narrative is concerned with the illiterate, the impoverished and despised, the used, abused, bullied and brutalised. Drummond has written a beautiful story of the South Coast’s terrible beginnings.
Apart from the stunning workmanship which underpins it, The Sound makes giant contribution to the story of settlement along Western Australia’s South Coast and for this reason it enters the local, state and national canons. Though widely and generally impressively reviewed it has attracted criticism for keeping too strictly to the actual historical narrative, at times eschewing story in favour of fact. This is because The Sound is a PhD thesis, the author obliged to work to a set of rules. Nonetheless, it requires a certain type of character not only to take on a subject as abject as the misadventure of a 19th Century sealing gang but to pull it off. Drummond is a rare and different kind of story teller. She is very good with words.
You cannot come away from The Sound without feeling you’ve actually journeyed in a crowded open-boat stuffed full of people, dogs, provisions, equipment and the protagonist’s booty itself, salted down sealskins. The seascape is not just visible but audible too. As we follow the gang’s progress from Cape Arid to King George Sound we are treated to a visceral being-at-sea and about-the-islands experience. Had the author not been compelled to bring peripheral characters and events, complete with names and actual transcribed elements, which jarred at key moments, into the story and instead found a way to keep the seamless nature of the tale in tact -which she manages for the great majority- the novel could easily have been nominated or short listed, perhaps even pulled-off a victory on the annual national awards circuit. Drummond is that good a writer.
The Sound‘s central figure is Wiremu Heke, a Maori warrior from Otakau on New Zealand’s South Island. Better known as William Hook or Billhook, Wiremu opens and closes the narrative in the first person. Between times Drummond adopts a conventional third person approach. At certain points Billhook’s tale can come across as distracted, the result of the author building other characaters while detailing their gruelling journey. However, Billhook’s motives and redeeming qualities are subsequently revealed, particulary through the awful experience of the accompanying women, and the over-all effect is rewarding.
The combination of brutality, misery, tenderness and beauty Drummond instils in her characters will preserve the story in the memory of most readers. Her men and women of vastly differing cultural backgrounds are abandoned along a dangerous coastline populated only by wildlife and family-sized groups of Aborigines. The gang has nothing but the clothes on their backs, a few knives and cutlasses, a couple of pistols, muskets and a bag or two of gun powder. Beyond a few sacks of basic provisions which soon run out they must fend for themselves. The Sound is not a pleasant story and there’s little comfort. Even when Samuel Bailey, one of the more unsavoury characters, who has kidnapped an Aboriginal girl from the mainland and is revealed a sadistic peadophile, Drummond doesn’t shirk what it takes to make him real.
The Sound brings back into being the memory of a series of terrible events which occurred along the South Coast between Esperance and Albany immediately prior to first settlement, it’s real achievement being the acknowledgement and laying to rest of a handful of lost souls. The Sound is redemptive but not a feel good book, it is an accurate, beautifully rendered portrait of savagery, misery and survival. There is cold and wet and pain and damage on nearly every page, but there is comeraderie, tenderness, hope and beauty too.
It ought to be read and over time will gain in stature.