Whish-Wilson, David. The Coves. Perth, Western Australia: Fremantle Press, 2018. RRP: $27.99, 224pp. ISBN: 9781925591279
Note: This review contains spoilers.
It is 1849 in San Francisco, and Samuel Bellamy has entered the ‘Sydney Coves’ with the hope of finding his Mother. Filled with occasional street and pub violence, prostitution, and other confronting acts, it is an intensely violent environment which is sure to accelerate the maturation of a 12-year-old boy. These were the two main things that fascinated me in David Whish-Wilson’s newest novel, The Coves (2018), published by Fremantle Press: it is not just a historical fiction but also an exciting coming-of-age story that highlights the violence and hope that is associated with not only one’s survival during this period, but also the process of maturation itself.
The novel is set during the gold rush of San Francisco where the Australian diggers ‘were [the] unwelcome boat people’ (McAllister) of the time. They travelled to California with the intention of finding wealth and a better life, but these aspirations were met with violent disapproval by the nativist American migrants. The latter led a lynching campaign to rectify the situation, and this became ‘one of the most peculiar episodes of attempted ethnic cleansing in colonial history’ (McAllister). If you are like me, someone with minimal knowledge about this period of history, do not stress! Whish-Wilson accommodates this by creating an accessible space which allows the reader to navigate this history alongside his young protagonist, Samuel Bellamy. Samuel’s point of view provides a well-rounded exposition of this episode in history because his survival in the Coves depends on his infiltration of both parties:
‘That particular matter was for Sam’s benefit alone, and here was the leader trying to help him, and he realised that he wanted to impress Keane, and so he asked the question that he supposed was natural of a boy his age.’ (55)
‘She put a mouth to his ear. Held his forearm. “Is this girl, or any other Sydney-town citizen privy to our plan? … you didn’t tell the Coves about this, did you?”
“No, she isn’t. I didn’t,” Sam lied.’ (190)
His double infiltration grips the reader with thrill and terror as Samuel risks being discovered for his wavering loyalty. But the reader is also able to experience, in a way that is exciting and fresh, the trials and tribulations of both parties in this historical battle for wealth.
In any period of colonial history, violence always seems to be the method of assertion. Because of its historical basis, The Coves is not short of violent scenes, but it seems that violence takes on another role throughout the novel as Whish-Wilson entangles it with Samuel’s coming-of-age. Samuel sees a lot of horror in his short life:
‘Sam Bellamy had not seen, but one among the men had showed the kindness of severing the artery inside the thigh of the sailor, whose leg now pulsed blood over his feet and toes, down the verticals of the stool, to sluice across the boards.’ (30-31)
‘Sarah Proctor was tied to a chair beside. Black-eyed and bloody mouthed where her teeth had gone through her lip … She had been badly abused. Her pinafore was bloodied and hoisted to her baby-swollen belly.’ (206)
He has no choice but to observe these repetitively violent scenes, and, arguably, these force him to grow up quite rapidly. He becomes skilled in the way of crime, relies upon the companionship of a prostitute, and he displays an act of initiative that saves him when his double infiltration is threatened. He does all these things so that he can keep himself alive; he is driven with the hope that he will be reunited with his Mother, who can provide him with a sense of ‘home’:
‘San Francisco was beginning to feel like a home, but that home was just a few buildings and a few streets, and none of them contained his mother.’ (145)
Whether this use of violence was Whish-Wilson’s intention, I cannot say, but his amalgamation of this history with coming-of-age spurs an interesting correlation between repetitive violence and accelerated maturity.
To summarise, The Coves is a fascinating novel. Whish-Wilson succeeds in providing an engaging access point into this aspect of Australian/US history, while also presenting an interesting way of understanding coming-of-age. But the novel is generous. It provides more threads that can be further teased such as crime, hope, gender, and the idea of ‘home.’ The Coves is a novel that will, no doubt, keep book clubs talking.
McAllister, Peter. “Sydney Ducks.” The Monthly, February 2015, https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2015/february/1422709200/peter-mcallister/sydney-ducks.
Rebecca Harris is a recent Bachelor of Arts (Honours) graduate from the University of Western Australia. She was Regional Project Support at writingWA. In June 2018, Rebecca will begin her first full-time job in Japan.