Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 15, 2014

The Bright Side of My Condition, by Charlotte Randall

The Bright Side of My ConditionNew Zealand author Charlotte Randall is the author of seven novels, and she is not afraid to take risks in her writing.  In this, her latest novel, she has created a limited world inhabited by just four characters, and it works brilliantly…

The title, The Bright Side of My Condition, comes from the quotation from The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe which introduces the book:

I learn’d to look more upon the bright side of my condition and less upon the dark side, and to consider I enjoy’d rather than what I wanted; and this gave me sometimes such secret comforts that I cannot express them.

Like Daniel Defoe’s original, The Bright Side of My Condition is confessional in style and it brings us a sincere narrator intent on conveying a rich moral truth.  It’s based on the true 19th century story of four convicts stranded for ten years on the remote Snares Islands (south of the South Island of New Zealand), and it explores the human condition in extremis.  What happens when four men, with nothing in common but their fate, are thrown into dependence on one another for survival?  Like Lord of the Flies, this novel raises the question: can man create a new kind of society when the opportunity arises? what kind of leadership and government will emerge?

These existential issues emerge in due course, but from the outset, The Bright Side of My Condition is a fascinating book, and compulsive reading.  The four men are escapees from the Norfolk Island penal colony; they are rogues and opportunists:

When the Captain find us stowaways and give us the choice between join the island or join the crew, all of us to a man cry island! island! So he put us ashore with a few provisions and a trypot and sail away.  The ship weren’t even out of sight before our choice seem like a mistake.  I dint say a word.  Gargantua were already rubbing his lardy palms together and talking of a roasted albatross.  He were as happy as I’ve ever seen him, but he always done his thinking in his stomick.

Of course Gargantua aint his real name.  It’s the name he were stuck with in Norfolk jail.  We were all stuck with new names.  But when we escaped somehow them names come with us.  I’m Bloodworth.  It aint a name I ever heared of before it were thrust upon me.

At first the island look hospitable.  Probably that were just because we were used to prison walls, follered by the tight parts of a sailing ship.  Then the Captain yank us out and we tumble onto the deck like we were one beast, all knees and elbows.  Soon he start hollering there aint enough tucker for sightseers.  That were when he give us our choice.  Gargantua whisper he overheared it from the first mate there aint enough tucker for the crew even, it’s certain we all starve together.  So our choice were the devil or the deep blue sea, and we choose the devil.  (p.11)

Bloodworth invents some nicknames of his own in due course, privately christening his companions ‘Mr Sweat, Mr Pray and Mr Know-it-all’ (p.227).  These names are apt.  On the island, Slangam, an aggressive, opinionated, inflexible man, imposes his authority immediately, and just as well, because he alone is capable of forward planning to ensure their long-term survival.  He alone has the force of personality to plant the potatoes instead of eating them, and he bullies them into making a rudimentary shelter.  This sets the pattern for his leadership: he has a kind of perverted Protestant work ethic and imposes his fixation on being busy on the others.  Which doesn’t please Bloodworth because by his own admission, he is lazy.   He quickly sees that the job of gathering firewood allows him to disappear for long periods of unsupervised time away from the others, and that much of that time can be spent in idle contemplation.  To his own surprise he becomes an avid observer of nature, and some of the best passages in this book are his droll descriptions of penguin rookery:

Now the sea and the fish and the birds turn out my chief delight.  It aint jes because them other felons is a bunch of arseholes neither, there’s arseholes everywhere, and it aint jes because there’s nothing else to do.  It’s because I discover a penguin fish have a family life, and a way of doing things, and its way of living go on no matter what the lunatic King order or the poxy Norfolk jailers think or them sad London virgins pray for.  It go on with rules and games and conversations and tragedies jes like a play and it give the lie to them churchmen that say only humans can have such a show.

Even them know-alls from the Royal Society, do any one of them know how a penguin converse?  How one clatter his beak and poke out his chest and wriggle his flippers and the other bend his head towards him like a old man listening?  How in a sad moment they stand chest to chest and toe to toe and only the God-given stuntedness of their flippers prevent the hugging of each other?  Do the Royal Society know how they play?  How they line up on the rocks to dive in and do look very circumspect, for aint the sea full of gobbling seals, and the line go orderly for a while, when all of a sudden, whee! a penguin make a huge leap off the rocks and do his dive through the air like a acrobat and go splat on the wter jes for the sheer fun of it? (p. 102)

These penguins are Bloodworth’s solace and his sanity, because his companions irritate him profoundly.  The reader finds it hard to be on her guard against the partisan position of first-person narration because Bloodworth’s attitude to the others seems so reasonable!  Toper – who becomes their inventive cook – is very religious, and his existential angst about their fate as a punishment from God grates on the others.  Stuck with each other’s company for long periods, especially when the weather is foul, the men share their stories, but it takes many years before they confess the true nature of their crimes.  There are frequent quarrels, superbly rendered by Randall, where the pseudo-intellectual Gargantua baits Toper in circular arguments which are always resolved by Slangam shutting the discussion down, as in Toper’s tale about life on the hulks:

‘There weren’t no escapes.  The convicts cud hardly walk in their leg irons.’

‘That ain’t true,’ Gargantua argue. ‘Everyone know all yer have to do is pay off the overseer to have yer irons loosened a bit.’

‘Most dint have no money.’

Fatty shake his head like that’s even stupider than getting catched.

‘Anyway, we set sail for Australia,’ Toper continue.  ‘And oh Lordy, we find ourselfs in the second fleet, the worst of all.’

‘That’s a mistake in yer telling,’ Gargantua say.  ‘Yer cud not know it were the worst till it get there and discharge its cargo.’

‘This is a story, aint it?’

‘Yair, but yer moved the ending to the beginning.’

Slangam begin to roll up his sleeve.  (p. 46-7)

Bloodworth admits that he does his share of baiting and teasing in the beginning too, but in time his solitary ways provoke the superstitious beliefs of the others and the uncomfortable unity of the group is shattered.  Structuring the novel in three periods over the decade, Randall renders the build-up of this tension superbly, and her concluding section is an audacious resolution that took me entirely by surprise.

This is a splendid novel which deserves to be widely read.

PS Don’t miss Randall’s earlier novel Hokitika Town – see my enthusiastic review here.

PPS There’s a really interesting review at Reid’s Reader as well.

Author: Charlotte Randall
Title: The Bright Side of My Condition
Publisher: Penguin New Zealand, 2013
ISBN: 9780143570660
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin NZ.

Availability

Fishpond: The Bright Side of My Condition


Responses

  1. […] The Bright Side of My Condition by Charlotte Randall (see my review) […]


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