Paul Daley will be familiar to many readers as a respected journalist expressly committed to exposing the blind spots of white culture’s dominant myths about Indigenous history and Australia’s national identity. Daley is perhaps less well known as a novelist and playwright. These two interests in his work – historical research and imaginative writing – inform his powerful second novel, Jesustown, Daley’s seventh book, and one which he felt ‘compelled’ to write.
Canberra leads a double life: by day the federal capital, crafting legislation and performing on the world stage; at night it is transformed into a suburban neighbourhood where people cook their meals and pay their bills and water their gardens. But a pervasive view of Canberra is that it is the home only of public servants on secondment; that it is just a waste of a good sheep paddock. This is a stereotype in which I was instructed pretty much as soon as I arrived in Australia in the early 1990s. On my first visit to Canberra I saw exactly what I had been schooled to see: low-rise buildings emanating a dull power; orderly but sparsely populated streets. Not until moving here at the end of the 1990s did I come to know the quotidian nature of the town, the disorder lurking just below the bureaucratic structures, and the raffish, dreamy quality that is a remnant of Walter Burley Griffin’s adulterated plans.
Much Australian writing about military subjects reminds me of the recent film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which started in adulthood and rapidly progressed into adolescence. From the evidence of this work, it is showing no signs of growing up. This book purports to have discovered an event about which Australians have remained deeply ignorant for the last ninety years: the charge of the Light Horse at Beersheba in the Middle Eastern war against the Ottoman Empire, in 1917. Only someone long exiled on a desert island could call this event ‘forgotten’. We have had a famous film about it (Forty Thousand Horsemen, 1940), a good book about the Light Horse by Alec Hill (1978), extensive work on the subject by Ian Jones, and a plethora of books by British historians about the Middle Eastern war that include this incident. The author, Paul Daley, must be one of the few Australians who had not heard of it. Is this reason enough to write a book about it? Possibly – but not this book.