It begins in the 1800s as the Brits impose harsh repression on the Irish in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and the action then moves to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) when the rebel Maurice O’Dwyer is transported after a shambolic trial. His trials and tribulations are vaguely reminiscent of For the Term of His Natural Life except that with plot and characterisation Tully draws a link between the colonial appropriation of indigenous land and the British Occupation of Ireland. Marcus Clarke, writing in the 1870s when it was believed that the indigenous people were on the verge of extinction, excluded them from his narrative, but John Tully’s convict escapee finds an indigenous ally in the bush, and authorial respect is paid to indigenous bushcraft and survival.
(Please see my review of Lyndall Ryan’s Tasmanian Aborigines, a History since 1803 for an overview of indigenous life in this period and how the myth of extinction came to be perpetrated).
Robbed of Every Blessing shares with For the Term of His Natural Life the themes of guilt, treachery, redemption, and the nature of evil. Like Rufus Dawes, Maurice O’Dwyer is tested to the limits of human endurance, and part of the interest in the book lies in how far he can be pushed before his spirit or his integrity fails. As the title indicates, O’Dwyer is robbed of all he holds dear, but a cruel travesty of justice has brought his younger brother to Van Dieman’s Land too, and the need to protect the simple-minded Padraig makes O’Dwyer more vulnerable to his nemesis Captain Reynolds.
The author’s passion for exposing the injustice of transporting Irishmen for defending their land against oppressive invaders is clear, but it’s kept under control, as is the depiction of transportation. Writing about the convict era in Tasmania takes real skill because it was a brutal and sadistic regime, and any attempts to airbrush its cruelties would lack authenticity. An author can’t credibly sentimentalise or excuse the violence of the system. At the same time, nobody wants to read a sensationalised catalogue of horrors either. Tully handles it by narrating the story through a cast of characters that includes almost everyone involved in the plot (which works surprisingly well, it’s not confusing at all). These multiple perspectives prevent a clichéd binary presentation of opposites, and offers some understanding of why and how the brutality of the system impacted on the gaolers too.
I enjoyed John Tully’s previous book Dark Clouds on the Mountain (see my review) but Robbed of Every Blessing confirms this author as a really good storyteller, with a powerful story to tell.
Visit the Hybrid Publishers website for an interview with the author and the opportunity to listen to the author read an excerpt from the book.
PS That magnificent photo on the cover is by Bob Brown.
Author: John Tully
Title: Robbed of Every Blessing
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2015
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers