Review Blog

Jan 18 2017

The soldier's curse by Meg and Tom Keneally

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Monsarrat series. Vintage Books, 2016. ISBN 9780857989369
The Monsarrat series begins with an absolutely mesmerising story of a trusted convict at Port Macquarie in the north of New South Wales. It is 1825, and Monsarrat, a convict with a legal background who does the secretarial work for the commandant, Major Shelborne, realises that his wife's health is worse than the surgeon thinks. A trusted convict, Monsarrat spends many mornings drinking tea in the Government House kitchen with the cook, Mrs Mulrooney and it is she who tends to Mrs Shelborne, trying different ways of tempting the ailing woman to eat. Through Monsarrat's descriptions of these events, we see the misery of the penal settlement, the destitute convicts serving out their time on hard rations, strict punishments and little chance of surviving, let alone getting the prized ticket of leave at the end of their sentences.
The writers, Meg and Tom Keneally insinuate so much historical detail into the story that the reader will feel they know the place and its inhabitants intimately.
A cruel second in command, Captain Diamond relishes the absence of Major Shelborne, sneaking around the little settlement looking for breaches of rules, then using these infringements for his own ends. His cruelty is demonstrated when one convict, Dory attempts an escape. On being recaptured he is given one hundred lashes, Diamond taking over from Private Slattery to deliver more that the allocated number, leaving the wretch lying on his stomach in hospital with a skinless back, soon to die.
But it is after Mrs Shelborne's death, seemingly from being slowly poisoned, that Diamond's vindictive nature comes to the fore, accusing Mrs Mulrooney and by implication, Monsarrat of her death, his arguments overwhelming the grief stricken husband.
Monsarrat must tread carefully if he is to prove their innocence.
Marvelous historical detail, believable characters, a setting that at times is beyond belief and a style of storytelling that takes the reader back to literature of the nineteenth century, combine to make this one of the best historical novels I have read. The Kenneallys touch on a whole range of themes significant to life in convict Australia: treatment of indigenous people, women in colonial society, struggle between rich and poor, education, isolation, our convict beginnings and so on, raising many issues which will be thought about long after this book has been read.
Fran Knight

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