Lynch, Gay. Unsettled. Balmain: Ligature Pty Limited, 2019. RRP: $29.99, 411pp, ISBN: 9781925883237.
Gay Lynch’s second novel is a far-reaching saga of displacement, struggle and hope. Set predominantly in South Australia’s Mt Gambier region in the late 1850s to early 1860s, it tracks the twisting fortunes of the passionate Lynch family from Irish Galway, who have come to this colonial outpost to wrangle a better life and maybe one day buy their own plot of land. With compassionate connection to the first peoples of the region, the Booandik, the story musters a complex collection of characters from many walks of life, all of whom are navigating the creep of Queen Victoria’s colony into country that is cruel, challenging, bountiful and beautiful. The importance of the land is flagged at the outset, the cover being an intriguing soft-hued landscape called ‘The Devil’s Punch Bowl, Near Mt Schanck’, by George French Angas. The work was painted in the general region where the story is set, in 1847.
The novel isn’t about heroic ‘pioneering’ in the usual sense. Behind the antics of the restless, impetuous heroine Rosanna, there’s a backdrop of people scraping by, squabbling, mucking up, but surviving well enough—sometimes on the land, sometimes in the nearby town or port. Those living in the more isolated ‘frontier’1 areas have a deep if largely unfounded fear of ‘blacks’ and of lawless brigands roaming the countryside. But their concerns are fast becoming groundless. In its extended time frame (1859–1880) and liminal urban–wild setting there are echoes of Patrick White’s The Tree of Man.
The character of Rosanna is complemented by some other stand-outs, chiefly, her brave Booandik friend Moorecke, her feckless older brother Edwin, their younger brother Skelly—the invalid, the observer—and lastly the angelically handsome actor Charles Sutherland, who steals far more than Rosanna’s heart. There’s more than a sniff of melodrama about the plot. But this mirrors the real-life play on which much of the action hangs, an 1840 melodrama called The Hibernian Father, by convict playwright Edward Geoghegan. This play dramatises the swashbuckling story of Rosanna’s forbears, the Galway Lynches, and the author inserts verbatim passages into the narrative, with which characters interact. Sutherland has the play in his keeping and Rosanna becomes captivated by it. Perplexingly, she risks her precious family honour by allowing herself to be drip-fed scenes of the play by Sutherland in exchange for brutish sex. This leaves her guilt-stricken, confused and, sadly, believing herself to be in love with her rapist. The ‘melodrama’ undercurrent is heightened by the silent-movie style chapter headings—‘ROSANNA CONCEIVES OF A PLAN’ (76) or ‘THE ACTOR TEASES HER WITH A PLAY’ (114).
Rosanna’s furtive friendship with the Booandik woman Moorecke is more subtle. Their relationship, as they mature from girls playing by the reed-fringed pond, spied on by Skelly, into complex women, survives only in the shadows, unsanctioned even by those closest to Rosanna. When Moorecke helps Rosanna through childbirth and its aftermath, (jealous and rejected) Skelly observes: ‘After supper when the light has gone, his sister reappears alone, munching singed meat that reeks of eucalyptus smoke, out of her kerchief. He recognises the top note smell of echidna. She really has become a savage’ (278).
The friendship between the women allows Lynch to cast light on the Booandiks’ interaction with the encroaching white colonisers. The kangaroo hunt hosted by station owner Mr Ashby is emblematic of their presumptuous, often brutal, incursions. Afterwards, the exhilarated host addresses his blood-spattered pals, crying:
We will tame this place. […] It is unfortunate that these creatures, gentle enough, must feed our sport. They know no better than to tear the livelihood from our grasslands, cutting out the cattle for whom the feed is intended […] They are opportunists, marauders. I toast Queen Victoria and her Empire, and you, my worthy hunters, for your energy and courage during this successful foray—at least one hundred pesky kangaroos felled, meat for the dogs and for us all. (112–13)
In the near past, the Booandik have been shot at and killed by European ‘opportunists and marauders’; in the present, their camps are wrecked with impunity, and they are consigned to the fringes at, for instance, race or market days. Moorecke becomes almost invisible, she and her husband Jack forced to walk far afield for shearing work, their health failing and their options for survival diminishing.
The struggle to be seen is a theme of the novel. Unsettled is loosely based on the author’s husband’s ancestors, and Lynch, in her acknowledgements, describes her work as an attempt ‘to materialise Lynch girls, absent from every family anecdote and official document, church, state and school, apart from their birth documents’ (419). The result is a detailed picture of the general subjugation, with few exceptions, of females to male family members (fathers, brothers and husbands), and in broader society. Rosanna’s father permits her to work at the Big House—which happens to suit her, but that’s not the point—only to pay off Edwin’s gambling debts. Even young, sensitive Skelly, following his father’s example, feels free to hit Rosanna, later stewing over it: ‘He will not apologise. She should show him more respect’ (156).
It appears from reading both the story and the acknowledgements that Lynch has done exhaustive research, and this adds colour and depth throughout. Lynch shows an affinity with her settings in evocative depictions of wild, dense bush, sweeping vistas, reed-lined ponds, pastures, deep caves and crater lakes (at times, these settings giving a leg-up to a lagging plot). There is abundant interweaving of true history, such as the 1860–61 expedition of Robert Burke and William Wills, or the 1859 wreck of the steamship Admella—which in the narrative prompts a change of course for Rosanna. Early place names such as Gambierton and the Yarra Yarra River are another curiosity.
In a further stretch for authenticity, Irish terms pepper the narrative. They’re often raunchy, usually interesting, sometimes distracting, and always diligently italicised:
When he snatches her fingers and places them inside his breeches she feels alarm but his skin is soft—softer than the skin of her cíochanna—and warm. She touches the tip of his boddagh with trepidation, as she might approach a small sea creature that twitches and trembles beneath her fingers, oozing silky liquid. He sighs and shivers. She hunkers down over a familiar ache in her lower back that she remembers from the aggravating few days before she bleeds, when she can’t keep her fingers from her fáel-flaps. (146)
Lynch is at her most persuasive in the portrayal of human emotions, writing with delicacy, simplicity and compassion. Instances are the worried adoration of Skelly for his sister as she pursues her wayward dreams; or the depth and universality of grief; or the shame of a family, as when the bailiff comes for Edwin.
From perspectives that elude a contemporary narrative, Unsettled taps into several present-day issues—chiefly racism, feminism, mental health (through Rosanna’s depression), and (by way of Skelly’s appalling treatment at a monastery) the abuse of children in church institutions. Lynch may, at times, seem a tad heavy-handed, with 21st century attitudes popping boldly into her 19th century context. But while certain attitudes of the day may prevail, there is no saying that everyone, Lynch’s characters included, need agree with them.
While Lynch’s intermingling of historical context with contemporary expression might flurry some readers, in Unsettled she has wrought an impressive saga that ultimately explores the universal experience of grinding out a life.
1 Although the term ‘frontier’ is nowadays contentious, in keeping with views of the time, Part 1 is titled ‘Frontier of South Australia (1859)’
Jen Banyard is the author of four novels for young readers (published by Fremantle Press) and numerous stories. She has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Western Australia.