Gillian Dooley reviews 'The Coves' by David Whish-Wilson

A small bay is a cove, and so is a man, according to old-fashioned slang. The Coves takes advantage of this coincidence: it’s a story about a gang of men that rules ‘Sydney Cove’ in the mid-nineteenth century. But this is not the familiar Sydney Cove in New South Wales. There is another one across the Pacific in San Francisco, where arrivals from Australia, ‘pioneers in … viciousness and depravity’, were said to commit ‘atrocious crimes’, according to the novel’s epigraph from Herbert Asbury’s The Barbary Coast (1933).

We first encounter Sam Bellamy, a resourceful and basically decent boy on the cusp of puberty, attempting to appease the mutineers on a whaling ship en route from Sydney to the Californian gold fields. Alone in the world, he is heading to America in search of his mother. Life is cheap both on the ship and on land. In a lawless society, he survives on finely tuned instincts: telling the right stories when he’s noticed, knowing where to hide when he’s not. He and his dog ‘had survived by reading the faces of men’.

If you like your villains barbaric, your headcount high, and your fallen women soft-hearted, The Coves may be the book for you. Young Sam is likeable and ingenuous: when he rates the Coves’ leader, Thomas Keane, as one of the ‘finest men he’d met’ – despite his being a standover man, a killer, and a thief – it no doubt reflects the quality of humans he has encountered so far.

Whish-Wilson’s prose aims for an antique register with elements of both poetry and contemporary slang, which it rarely achieves, straining too often under adjectival overload. He nevertheless tells a vivid adventure story and at the same time reveals a little-known chapter in Australian–American history.

Published in ABR Online Exclusives