Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 17, 2019

The Trespassers, by Meg Mundell

After the last election, you could be forgiven for thinking that Australians don’t care about anything that’s important.  Not about climate change, not about refugees, not about homelessness, older women adrift without a secure income, or the stinginess of Newstart.  (And maybe not even embarrassed about our recent betrayal of small neighbouring countries in the Pacific though it’s too soon to say). Electors were of course having to choose between a party that openly panders to the lowest common denominator, and a graceless party torn between being electable and having some kind of ethical stance.  Not much of a choice, really.

But because I tend to like my fellow-Australians, I prefer to think that what look like mean-spirited choices happen because they are just busy, and too preoccupied (often by sport) to pay proper attention.  Tired out at the end of the day and content to invest whatever energy is left in watching The Bachelorette or women’s footy or some crime drama with or without guns.   I’m like that too, when MasterChef is on.  I’m on bypass for the entire season because the show starts at the same time as what passes for current affairs on the ABC.  That kind of switching-off is very bad for democracy.  But telling voters that they ought to pay attention so that they can make informed electoral choices is never going to work.  One of the things we are most complacent about is democracy.

Which is partly why I think Meg Mundell’s new book is so brilliant. The Trespassers is gripping reading, unputdownable from the first chapter, and inhabited by characters impossible to forget.  The near-future in which the book set, is (rather like Rohan Wilson’s Daughter of Bad Times) not really the future at all.  The story’s timeline is only a few decades away, but the events that propel it are already happening now.  This novel will lure people into paying attention and they will love reading it even as it compels them to face unpalatable truths.

This is the blurb:

Fleeing their pandemic-stricken homelands, a shipload of migrant workers departs the UK, dreaming of a fresh start in prosperous Australia. For nine-year-old Cleary Sullivan, deaf for three years, the journey promises adventure and new friendships; for Glaswegian songstress Billie Galloway, it’s a chance to put a shameful mistake firmly behind her; while impoverished English schoolteacher Tom Garnett hopes to set his future on a brighter path. But when a crew member is found murdered and passengers start falling gravely ill, the Steadfast is plunged into chaos. Thrown together by chance, and each guarding their own secrets, Cleary, Billie and Tom join forces to survive the journey and its aftermath.

The Trespassers is a beguiling novel that explores the consequences of greed, the experience of exile, and the unlikely ways strangers can become the people we hold dear.

There is a moment in the novel when Billie, songstress-turned-nurse, becomes aware of one of those unpalatable truths when she reads an online article about their plight:

Backflow on the piece was evenly split: roughly one-quarter agreed with the journo, another quarter were fence-sitters, and the remaining half voiced angry disagreement or outright venom.  (p.180)

Social media has unleashed powerful voices and their venom carries more weight than it should.

By the time the novel reaches this point the reader is deeply invested in the fate of the three main characters.  Cleary is just a lovable little boy, made more vulnerable because his mother falls victim to a disease that somehow bypassed all the stringent bio-checks before departure.  Without realising the implications of what he saw, he witnessed a crime so heinous that one more death wouldn’t matter, and without his mother to communicate for him, he is trapped in the microcosm of the ship whose fate is reminiscent of the plague-ship Ticonderoga in 1852.  (If you haven’t seen the play that dramatises that story, Hell Ship Ticonderoga starring Michael Veitch, is touring again in 2020).  Billie, hung out to dry by a former lover but whose compassion never wavers, battles to stay uncompromised by the ship’s management and is baffled by what terrifies the boy.  And Tom, exactly the kind of teacher you’d love to have for your own child, holds a vital clue as to what happened, even as he struggles for life in the death-ward.

The novel is more or less chronological with occasional flashbacks for backstories, and three narrative strands carry it forward.  Cleary’s 3rd person narrative conveys his limited perspective, yet in some ways he sees more than the adults do.  Billie’s 3rd person perspective is more expansive, but she—like the rest of the women dragooned into nursing the sick—knows only what she is told by an evasive management, supplemented by gossip and rumours from the other passengers.  Tom’s narrative is in more intimate 1st person, and sometimes confessional.  What’s very interesting to me is the way these three characters feel guilt for mistakes they’ve made, while corporate monsters and their agents feel not a shred of it.  (This reminds me of Michelle Johnston’s Dustfall and how a doctor’s guilt is contrasted with the lack of corporate responsibility for Australia’s asbestos tragedy.  Why Dustfall wasn’t nominated for the Miles Franklin I will never know).

One of my favourite images from the novel, is the spook ‘interviewing’ Cleary, and failing utterly to understand how a child’s mind works.  They ask him to draw his friends:

It would take ages to sketch his pals from back home — the gang from the Pearse Street flats, and his best mate, Ben, who’d moved up north last summer with his family, his ma a wreck from worry, afraid of losing another one to the bug. So he sketched Declan in a fighting stance, waving a sword, scowling ferociously.  The pose came out a bit bow-legged, but his pal would be rapt with the biceps.

Then he drew Billie, a smoking fag tucked in her fist.  Billie wasn’t big on smiling, but the spooks wanted happy pictures, so he plastered a wide grin across her face.

The Steadfast said the lady spook.  Could he draw the ship, out at sea?  The picture came out flat and lifeless, the vessel lost amongst blue waves, so he added a sea-serpent.  The monster was pure class, all coiled muscle and bloodshot eyes.  Below its jagged snarl the ship resembled a bath toy, a snack to be devoured in a single crunch.  The sight of it gave him a chill.

Now the questions came thick and fast.  What was the monster up to? Where had it come from? Why was it angry? There was too much to explain: the ocean’s lukewarm dead zones, all the sea creatures sickened by chemical waste; diseased squid and poisoned sharks, jellyfish hordes sifting the desolate currents, acid-ravaged mutants roaming the sea floor.  The way deep water sheltered fearful things.  Even back home, you never knew what was down there: selkies and merrows up the coast, the serpent lurking in Lough FoyleSea monsters are real, he wrote.  Granda saw one once. (p.157)

The conclusion to The Trespassers leaves me unsettled.  It’s meant to…

You can find out more about Meg Mundell at her website.

Author: Meg Mundell
Title: The Trespassers
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2019, 278 pages
ISBN: 9780702262555
Source: Bayside Library Service, Hampton branch

Available from Fishpond: The Trespassers or direct from UQP. Goodreads says there is a Kindle edition too.


Responses

  1. I bought this book last weekend so will come back to your review once I’ve read the book.

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    • I look forward to seeing what you think of it:)

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  2. I have requested this from the library.

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    • I was really surprised that my local library didn’t have a copy of it, and I’ll get that fixed next time I’m there.
      Update, the next day: I’ve put in a request for them to buy it.

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  3. Wow, what a fabulous review. I’m off to see if the library has a copy of this. I’ve never heard of it, so thanks for making me aware.

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    • Thank you, Claire, prepare to fall in love with little Cleary!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve reserved it from the library.

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  4. Her website says Meg M is involved with homelessness, which might explain some of the themes you outline in your post. Sounds a powerful novel.

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    • Yes, I had meant to say in my review that it’s been a while since I reviewed her first novel Back Glass (2011), but she has been busy writing other things, motivated obviously by a keen sense of injustice.

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  5. This sounds good. I was nodding away like a nodding-doll at your comments about politics!

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    • Ha! And that was after I deleted what was a very long rant indeed!

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  6. Everything you say hits the spot Lisa. But to know there are writers tackling these serious matters gives me a small measure of hope. It has to be a must read soon.

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    • Yes indeed, this is the kind of writing that gives me hope too.

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  7. Sounds good – and the mention of the Trioconderoga was very interesting. Hope it comes to NSW/Sydney.

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    • It’s a one-person play, with minimal set design, so you’ll most likely catch it in the small theatres. It’s brilliant, quite unforgettable…

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  8. Amongst my many isms is existentialism. You go too easy on your fellows. People who fail to act are as responsible for their inaction as we are for our actions, Cut them no slack! As they head to the footy, the shops, the bbq, our world is dying around them, around us.

    And I still believe Labor had an excellent programme (for a middle of the road, tokenly left party) which the electorate rejected in favour of glib slogans and a new obsolete-before-it-opens coal mine

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    • LOL Bill, I shall have to smarten up!

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  9. Ooh this sounds right up my alley! Thanks for the review, Lisa.

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  10. Strikingly beautiful cover! I would buy it based on that alone. I’m fickle like that!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Im fascinated by ocean photography, so much harder to do than wildlife photography on land, (which is difficult enough) and then there’s getting the colours right…

      Liked by 1 person

  11. […] The Trespassers by Meg Mundell, see my review; […]

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  12. […] as you know if you read my recent review of her new novel The Trespassers (UQP, August 2019), it’s making a splash too.  […]

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