Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 13, 2014

To Name Those Lost (2014), by Rohan Wilson

To Name Those LostI try not to overdo the superlatives when it comes to discussing books, but Rowan Wilson’s new novel To Name Those Lost is magnificent.  Somehow he has managed to capture both the brutality and the redemptive promise of early Tasmania in a superb novel that had me captivated from the moment I started reading it.

Thomas Toosey is a veteran of the Black War about which Wilson wrote so evocatively in The Roving Party.  He is a hard man, brutalised by years of poverty and violence, his own childhood destroyed by life on the Tasmanian frontier:

His first sight of the island as a child of fourteen sent out for thieving two overcoats in the winter of 1827 was the sandstone buildings studding the hill above the harbour in Hobart town and when they brought him above decks of the Woodford in iron fetters and set him aboard a longboat for the shore he’d thought Hobart a pissing version of his own Blackpool, the inlaying of warehouse masonry much like the stores on Talbot Road, the stark shapes of houses near the same, but then the winter mist parted from the mountain peak above and he knew he was in venerable country, as old as rock, and it wasn’t long before he became indentured to the frontiersman John Batman who ran a trade in victualling the army, and here the boy Thomas learned how the island’s wilder parts truly belonged to the tribal blacks, a displaced people taking refuge in the hills, and for a government bounty and to secure his land this frontiersman meant to hunt them by whatever means just or unjust, bloody or brave, and he marshalled a party of transportees and black trackers and put into the scrub armed for war and war it was, a bloody war, in which all hands were soiled and Thomas’s no less than another’s for a killer now he was, an easy killer, and yet while he was diminished by it, made less in God’s eyes and his own, he saw in the bullet, the knife, and the club a power that could make a man his own master.  (p. 55)

(You can see in this excerpt Wilson’s masterful use of prose which conveys a sense of the 19th century and its rugged idiom without overdoing it).

The use of that power lands Toosey a 10-year sentence in Port Arthur, further hardening his heart.  But this brute receives a pitiful message from his son, twelve years old, and motherless now.

My deer Mother is dead.  I have been turned out of Home.  I have nothing at all Deer Father I wish you wood come back.  There is no home for me with out you. I have only You in the hole world to love.  I hope You will stow this letter safley as a tresher of my faith in You your loyal Son.

He hasn’t seen the boy for many years, but he keeps this battered letter in his pocket and sets out for Launceston to rescue him.

But anarchy reigns in Launceston. The new Deloraine-Launceston railway has failed, and the people are refusing to pay a levy to ameliorate its debts.  Across the city there is looting, arson, and thuggery.  Young William and his orphaned friends are at risk not only from hunger and homelessness, but also from men who take advantage of the general lawlessness.   Wilson’s depiction of how these youngsters live shows the human tragedy of societies that don’t provide safety nets for the vulnerable.

Into this chaos comes Thomas Toosey, pursued by the Irish transportee Fitheal Flynn and his strange companion, a hooded man.  Flynn doesn’t just want the £200 that Toosey stole from him, he wants revenge.  His companion is ambivalent: the lawlessness will not last forever, and a confrontation that ends in violence as it is destined to do, will be a Pyrrhic victory.  Yet what lies beneath the hangman’s hood demands retribution and Toosey knows it.

With consummate skill, Wilson weaves the story between pursuer and pursued, leaking information about the connections between them but revealing the bitter truth only at the novel’s shattering conclusion.

Geordie Williamson also reviewed To Name Those Lost for The Australian but you may find it paywalled.

Author: Rohan Wilson
Title: To Name Those Lost
Publisher: Allen and Unwin. 2014
ISBN: 9781743318324
Source: Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin


Fishpond: To Name Those Lost


  1. I loved The Roving Party so I can’t wait to read this one.


    • I think you can tell that I am very impressed:)


  2. I can’t remember where I first heard about this book (was it shortlisted for something?), but I promptly added it to my wish list and now your review has only heightened my deep need to read it! Alas not published in the UK.


    • You might be thinking of The Roving Party which was his first one? This one has only just been released so it hasn’t had time to be shortlisted anywhere yet, as far as I know.

      I don’t want to put pishogues on it but I would say To Name Those Lost ought to be on every shortlist there is. I would nominate it to win this and that, but it’s early days yet and maybe there are more treasures to come.


      • Ah, you’re probably right. I take it this is the second volume?


  3. And I still haven’t read The Roving Party! Both are on the TBR list.


    • I’d love to know what you think of them, John. It’s the voice I find so compelling, Wilson has such a brilliant way of evoking the past and I find myself snared in the dilemmas that everyone in that time and place had to confront.


  4. Hi Lisa, I couldn’t agree with you more, the book is so good. I just finished reading it, and thought it is next year’s Miles Franklin winner. Reads like a western, but so much deeper.


    • A fantastic book, yes, and very powerful writing indeed. I expect it to be shortlisted widely:)


  5. […] omissions.  Where is Paddy O’Reilly’s The Wonders?  Where is N by John Scott, and To Name Those Lost by Rohan Wilson?  Where is just_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth?  And is it really too much to hope that […]


  6. […] To Name Those Lost by Rohan Wilson (Allen & Unwin) (See my review) […]


  7. […] To Name Those Lost (Rohan Wilson, A&U) See my review […]


  8. […] Crack is more like Rohan Wilson’s disconcertingly powerful duo The Roving Party and To Name Those Lost, also set in colonial Van Diemen’s Land when the new society being created is confronting […]


  9. […] and unforgettable novels also set in this period, including The Roving Party (2011 and To Name Those Lost (2014).  These novels bring to life the stories of Tasmania’s Black History, as I’ve […]


  10. […] The Roving Party (which won the Vogel and a swag of other prizes) to his second, the award-winning To Name Those Lost, he is an author whose books offer a forensic insight into human brutality.  But while both […]


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