Trevor Shearston, author of the Miles Franklin long-listed Game, is a well-established novelist with a backlist of six novels including Something in the Blood (UQP, 1979); Sticks That Kill (UQP, 1983); White Lies (UQP, 1986); Concertinas (Bantam Books, 1988); A Straight Young Back (Flamingo, 2000) and Dead Birds (HarperCollins, 2007). But I have to confess that I had never heard of his work, so I am pleased that the long-listing has brought him to my attention.
Though it obviously has merit, I wasn’t very excited about Game but I can see that Shearston is a writer to explore further. He has an interesting style, and in Game he has a cunning way of linking topical themes with the historical record.
Game is a fictionalisation of the life and preoccupations of the bushranger Ben Hall (1837-1865). Let me say at the outset that I have no time or patience for bushranger mythology: one of my neighbours was held up at gunpoint when she was working in a bank and it wrecked her mental health. While Ben Hall may not actually have pulled a trigger, he was part of a gang that was responsible for murder, and he was a thief who terrorised his neighbourhood. So as a character, he did not have my empathy at all. When in this book he reaches the stage in his ‘career’ where there is no prospect of negotiated surrender because the police – with better weapons, new laws and improved strategy – were beginning to have the upper hand, I felt not a twinge of sympathy for his entrapment.
But in the wake of recent local examples of domestic violence against women being played out with unconscionable male violence against their children, I found myself considering this book in a different light. Trevor Shearston’s novel portrays a criminal trapped in a mire of his own making, and part of his dilemma is how to manage a relationship with his son, when his wife, not unreasonably, wants the boy to have nothing to do with his father. This is a scenario played out all over contemporary Australia when couples separate and there is a battle for the hearts and minds of the hapless children…
It is interesting to see how Shearston shows Hall enlisting the aid of a sympathetic couple that he hopes will foster the boy, how he encourages the boy to nurture hostility against his wife’s new partner, and how he tries to buy him with an expensive gift. It is even more interesting to see the way that Hall organises secret meetings with the boy and tries to lure him into going away with him. At no time does this man ever seem to consider what might actually be in the best interests of his child. For Hall, it is all about what he wants, not about his son’s needs.
This novel is a brilliant rendering of the abject selfishness of father-love that has become so distorted that one can only breathe a sigh of relief when the boy makes his own choice, one that some children are not able to make because they lack the maturity to do it.
Author: Trevor Shearston
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2013
Source: Yarra Plenty Library via inter-library loan.