Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 11, 2015

The Mind’s Own Place, by Ian Reid

The Mind's Own PlaceHaving just recently re-read Roger McDonald’s masterpiece The Ballad of Desmond Kale, I found myself receptive to the idea of colonial Australia as a place of redemption in Ian Reid’s new novel, The Mind’s Own Place.  The title comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost where in Book Twelve our lingering parents … hand in hand with wandring steps and slow … take their way into an unknown world, a world which Satan in Book One has told them is theirs to shape:

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n [Paradise Lost, Book One, Line 255]

As we know from Marcus Clarke’s His Natural Life, Australia was a Hell not of mind but of reality for many convicts, but both McDonald and Reid cast the reader into a world where men of ambition could use their skills to reshape the tragedy of transportation into opportunity.

Told in a connecting series of vignettes which recreate 19th century England and the early days of the Swan River Colony in WA, The Mind’s Own Place brings us the story of two convicts formerly of respectable background: Thomas ‘Satan’ Browne, an engineer, architect, and embezzler; and Alfred Letch, a draper with a taste for finery beyond his means.  As emancipists, they marry Polly and Amelia, free settlers of poor background who emigrated under the scheme to redress the gender imbalance in the fledgling colony.   Their stories are linked by WA’s first detective ‘Runty’ Rowe, who travels in disguise aboard the Hougoumont in order to spy on Fenians being transported to Australia.

The back stories of Thomas and Alfred reveal the influences on their characters.  Thomas is an apprentice in the great days of British engineering with steam and rail.  He works industriously but never quite gets the recognition he craves from his father, his employer or his imprudent wife.  His ambiguous sexuality troubles him: he finds himself attracted to the muscularity of labourers toiling on the great industrial projects of the era, foreshadowing the emptiness of both his marriages, his fatal inability to interact easily with other men of the colony, and the temptation to find substitute satisfaction in grand ambitious projects.  Alfred, on the other hand, is enchanted by the wonderful fabrics becoming available in the new British manufacturing industries and is too easily seduced into theft when it offers him prosperity and the chance to indulge his generous impulses.  He has the confidence of a born salesman, and once he has completed his sentence he is able to establish himself as a respectable businessman, bolstered by the love of an intelligent, supportive wife.

As the pieces of the story come together, the focus on the mind’s own place becomes clearer.  Both couples have opportunity, but their attitudes determine how they cope with adversity.  For the women, there is the loss of young children and there is guilt, and how to bear it.  For the men, reputations that are irrevocably ruined in England can be rebuilt in Australia – and family connections can even be restored.  But in Australia – as anywhere else – reputations are capricious, and not always true to reality.

‘Runty’ Rowe’s role in the lives of Thomas and Alfred bookends the story and his surveillance role and subsequent career adds colour but he seems a bit wasted in this book.  Created with the real life Rowe as a catalyst, he is just such a great character, I think he deserves a book of his own!

Author: Ian Reid
Title: The Mind’s Own Place
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2015
ISBN: 9781742587479
Review copy courtesy of UWAP

Availability

Fishpond: The Mind’s Own Place: A Novel,  and all good bookstores.


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