Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 13, 2008

Musk and Byrne (2008), by Fiona Capp

Beware: there are lots of spoilers in this post: it’s not possible to discuss improbable plotting without revealing details. …

Having finished reading Musk and Byrne for the SLV Summer Challenge, I read Kate Sunners’ glowing review of it on MC Reviews and wondered if we had read the same book.  What Sunners describes as ‘beautifully simple writing’, I find inadequate.  It reads like a children’s book, like an Enid Blyton or a Harry Potter, where the prose is simple because the author has assumed that the reader is only interested in what happens and nothing more.  This is how Bryce Courtenay and Colleen McCullough write – and good luck to them and their impressive sales – but literature it’s not.  Their style of simplistic writing can be tolerable if the plot is engaging, but the plot in Musk and Byrne isn’t.  It’s ridiculous: one utterly unconvincing event after another.  I can’t believe it took ten years to write this muddle, and I am amazed by the criticial reception of it.  The Australia Council says she’s an acclaimed novelist and paid her a grant to write it, and the RN Bookshow gave it airspace. Finer minds than mine obviously see something in it that I don’t, so read on at your peril!


Capp appears to have a number of agendas: trained as a journalist, she’s answering the charge that it’s unfeminine to be a detached observer of tragedy in the service of one’s art but (anticipating the current furore over Bill Henson’s work and that of Donald Friend) she also snipes about how people judge art by the artist rather than on its own merits.   ‘If the woman can’t be punished, the painting can’ , she says on p271, forgetting, presumably, that she has already established that Jemma Musk’s painting was rejected by most people who saw it well before she became a flawed woman.

Capp’s main theme, however, is about the way people judge others on the most flimsy of evidence, – but because the plot is so improbable, this theme gets lost in the reader’s constant doubts about the book’s events.   Why does a family feeling the exquisite joy of their child’s miraculous survival turn on an observer too far away from the event to have intervened, and why would they expect her to anyway? Why does Gitordo’s herd of cows die when he has cured everyone else’s?  Why does Jemma impulsively buy a gun?

Jemma’s never established as a credible character in the first place.  She’s improbably well-educated for a woman, having a tutor rather than a mere governess and she has her own studio, which is very unusual for someone of her gender at that time.   On her father’s death, however, she is left to fend for herself.  The usual thing for the genteel poor is to be sent back to relations in England or be taken in as a governess or companion by family or friends of the same social class, but Jemma works instead at Miss Sand’s Ladies College.  There she complains to her friend Celestine about not having enough time for her art, and so Celestine whisks her off to Wombat Hill where she has leisure to fulfil her ambitions and no apparent means of support.

Alas, she not only attracts the attention of Gotardo, she also attracts the brooding figure of the local policeman, O’Brien, and he takes a very dim view of her marriage.  His obsession translates into stalking and threats, which become reality when Jemma’s child, Lucy dies of (presumably) cot death and she is accused of infanticide.  She is taken away from all this by Nathaniel Byrne who abandons his dreams of  exploring the unknown continent on her account, and they become fugitives, accused  – by the court of public opinion, the media and O’Brien himself – of every crime committed in the area and beyond. 

This nonsense is compounded by the ease with which the fugitives escape detection, a matter only belatedly addressed on p277 when we are advised that the woodcut images in the press were poorly done.  Jemma and Nathaniel masquerade as the newlywed Mr and Mrs Jonathan Wright and are promptly engaged without any references as governess and overseer by Dr Leask  – for he is a ‘man of science’ who makes ‘deductions’ and knows that they are ‘worthy of trust’. (p237).   Dr Leask and his wife conveniently keep away from the farm because their son Henry makes them feel ‘uneasy’ (p253) but on p290 it turns out that the boy has consumption and that the parents feared contagion.  (That the wife also has consumption and eventually dies of it makes this reasoning somewhat spurious.)

Anyway, as the reader knows he will, Henry realises who Musk and Byrne are, and so they all set off for Melbourne.  (Yes, this includes the dying boy). But alas, the housemaid has overheard events, their identities are revealed, and the press label them kidnappers.  The boy bravely goes to tell his father that he has not been kidnapped since it was his choice to go, and Nathaniel not-so-bravely IMO abandons Jemma because they are too recognisable as a couple. 

En route to the adventure he always wanted in Lake Eyre (there’s an inland sea waiting to be discovered) Nathaniel tells the police about O’Brien’s threats, something he might well have done six months beforehand when all their troubles started.  Hey presto, the police believe him when he says that he and Jemma didn’t commit any of the crimes they were accused of.  She goes back to Gotardo who forgives her behaviour and stoically puts up with her refusal to have any more children.  He also doesn’t mind her living in a Melbourne studio for half the week and Celestina continues to collect Jemma’s paintings and display them in her tea-rooms.  Nathaniel (with O’Brien in pursuit) conveniently disappear ‘somewhere north of Lake Eyre’ (p336) and Ned Kelly comes along to pique the interest of the penny-dreadfuls instead.

Well, there’s a place for this kind of writing, I suppose, but not on my bookshelves…

Author: Fiona Capp
Title: Musk and Byrne
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Source: Kingston Library

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