Gillian Dooley

Miriam Estensen is prodigious. It is only a year since I reviewed her Life of George Bass (2005) in ABR, and here is another well-researched historical volume, out in time to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of the Spanish expedition, which inter alia made the first European passage through the Torres Strait.

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What a phenomenon Bryce Courtenay is. In a world where we are constantly being told that books are on the way out, he sells them by the barrow-load. They’re big books, too. This one weighs 1.2 kilograms and is seven centimetres thick. It’s the kind of book that makes a reviewer wish she was paid ...

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Matthew Flinders, arriving in Sydney in 1803 after circumnavigating Australia, wrote to his wife bemoaning ‘the dreadful havock that death is making all around’. The sailors in Peter Mews’s Bright Planet have a more phlegmatic attitude. At least twelve of the ship’s complement of sixteen fail to survive the expedition. There may be more, but death becomes an everyday occurrence hardly worth mentioning. By the end, we are not entirely sure whether the remaining characters are alive or dead.

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Halfway through Matthew Flinders’ Cat, the protagonist admits that, when writing, he finds it ‘almost impossible to leave out what others might think of as superfluous detail. It was, he knew, self-indulgence.’ Is this a moment of self-directed irony on Bryce Courtenay’s part, or a case of the pot calling the kettle black? This novel brims with ‘superfluous detail’, and there is little attempt to curb the flow of information.

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