Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 6, 2020

The Schoonermaster’s Dance (2000), by Alan Gould

Keen to support both authors and bookshops, I’ve just bought Chris Flynn’s Mammoth and Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron, which caused a minor crisis on the A-G Australian authors section of the TBR.  No room.  I was sorely tempted to read one or other of them right away, but The Schoonermaster’s Dance waved at me, reminding me that I’d shelved it back in 2013 after a successful hunt for Alan Gould’s backlist after I discovered The Seaglass Spiral.

So here we are, and what an absorbing book it is, offering much to think about besides the obvious theme of obsession.

Forty-something Sarah Tilber is friends with Jenn, and has been since their schooldays in England.  The story of how Sarah’s obsession with her ancestor Charles Harling Tilber gets out of hand is narrated by Jenn… who learns most of it through Sarah’s letters and postcards and the occasional visit.  Jenn is the wife of a schoolmaster in England, and Sarah is the wife of a librarian in Canberra.

Or was.  The story begins with Sarah’s mystifying disappearance.  Her father’s death severed her sense of connection to things, and so she left her job at the NLA (where she was a librarian too); she left Kieran, her kindly but claustrophobia-inducing husband; and she set off on a lengthy odyssey to find the traces of this long-dead great-uncle.  And somehow, with the circumstances unknown, she disappears in July 1990, somewhere between the border of Peru and Chile.

Jenn, who mourns her still, tells Sarah’s story to ensure that her friend has a presence in this world.  Sarah had no children (and seemed not to like them much either) and nothing remains of her possessionless life except—like her ancestor—in the traces of other people’s lives.  So in the same way that Sarah was wholly absorbed in ‘establishing’ the fact of Charlie Tilber’s life, so too is Jenn, using the same word ‘establish’ to assert the importance of her narration of Sarah’s life.  Despite her misgivings about her friend’s absorption in the past life of an ordinary person, Jenn has taken on the same behaviour.

CHT (as Sarah often abbreviates him) was a man who spent his life at sea, and died alone in an aged care home.  But by a series of lucky events, Sarah meets a man who served on the same ship as a boy, and this creates a sense of connection to the great days of sail.  A newspaper clipping about a tragic voyage exists, and Sarah uses this to imagine reasons for the haunting that seemed to have been part of CHT’s melancholy persona.  The tragedy also enables Sarah to invest her great-uncle with a kind of tragic hero status.

Jenn, describing this situation, notes that her friend is detached from the present and the real people in her life (not just Kieran the hang-dog husband but also an uncle, a sister and some nephews in England).  The way that she seems wholly absorbed by the past becomes a kind of cautionary tale about the obsessive amateur sleuthing that goes on among many family historians.

Gould illustrates the pointlessness of this obsession with a telling moment.  Sarah visits Jenn in school where she teaches along with her husband, and in the library Sarah immediately locates an atlas.  She uses it to demonstrate that CHT can be located at a given moment in time on the latitude and longitude of an ocean, because of her research in his ship’s logbooks, which she has committed to memory.  Gould could have been writing about me when he describes how this obsession tests a friendship.  Sarah talks about nothing else, except for very occasional brief moments when she remembers to be polite.  The Schoonermaster’s Dance purports not to be a book about Jenn, but the reader can deduce that there must have been events in her own present, living family that would have merited the interest of a real friend.

Jenn doesn’t just feel a bit neglected by Sarah’s lack of interest in her and her children, she resents the demands that Sarah makes.  The long letters and postcards about CHT require Jenn to be interested in CHT too; she has to read it all, respond to the letters and remember it.  (If you have a friend interested in FamHist you will know that it is fatal to admit that you’ve forgotten some aspect of their, a-hem, fascinating research, because you will be told about it in excruciating detail all over again.)

Jenn needs to set boundaries to deal with the demands that Sarah places on her, but she doesn’t know how… and this is something that’s been on my mind a bit lately because a Facebook Friend posted the graphic below.  There was a time in my life when I realised that I was dealing with someone who had a serious personality disorder, and somewhere online I found not only an eerily accurate picture of her behaviour but also strategies for how to deal with it.  It saved my sanity at the time.

Well, Jenn needs to set those boundaries so that she can escape from Sarah’s obsession, but when Sarah visits her, Jenn ends up leaving her husband alone altogether, even (chastely) sleeping in the guest bedroom with Sarah so that she can listen to her friend go on and on and on about CHT.  Jenn even gets drawn into it a bit, though that was probably the wine they shared.

What Jenn eventually realises is that Sarah’s behaviour is triggered by a kind of faith that it will matter somehow.  As if finding significance in her great-uncle’s life, will do the same for hers.

‘I don’t know what I will come to, Jenn,’ she said, after an interval of silence.
‘Is that Charles Harling Tilber or Sarah Tilber?’ I asked.  I raised myself on my elbow and tried to make out her face against the whiteness of the pillow.  It was indistinct, a darkness around the eyes, whose expression I could not distinguish.
‘Both,’ the indistinct patch replied, and we were silent for some minutes.
Again I could have tried to introduce the subject of my own feelings.  Instead, I said, ‘It is about belief though, isn’t it? Belief that when you have turned the data into a retrieved presence, it will matter somehow.’
She wouldn’t answer. (p.197)

Well, we all want to feel significant.  Yet most of us are not, except to our family and friends.  What Gould seems to be saying is that, yes, there can be traces of a life that otherwise left no issue (children, possessions, creative endeavour) but that the pursuit of them leads to nowhere.  In Sarah’s case, to oblivion, because her journey ends in her own disappearance.

In the aftermath of Sarah’s disappearance, Jenn dislikes herself for her irritation with Sarah.  She arranges the final missives from Sarah in a particular way almost as an act of contrition:

…I believe my ordering represents the emotional truth of how far my friend was successful in ‘inhabiting more than her own time’, and the degree to which, alas, she was also deluded into thinking this was entirely possible.  And it also expresses my own perplexity at her loss, my unhappiness that Sarah’s life seems to end with her energies, her intelligence, her pursuit of truth, somehow misused. (p.230)

Gould’s writing is as always a joy to read.  This is Sarah, in a letter describing one of her sources to Jenn:

Nina Kovacs Musson is now a fond old lady in her early seventies with a very brown, lined face framed by short straight hair which has the soft colour of a cambric pillowslip.  She is slim and sits in a chair with a willed uprightness.  Her voice shows evidence of some rigorous elocution lessons early upon her arrival as a refugee in Australia, though I could detect the trace of her mid-European accent behind it.  Her husband, a semi-retired sheepfarmer, is equally deep-tanned, white-haired, and, for all that he remained out of our way, he did so with a kind of ‘suave tweediness’.  He is as patrician as Australians get, and she has the aspect of a middle-European of ‘good family’, sharpened by those lessons in the proper speaking of English.  (p.213)

This wonderful book is long out of print, but there seem to be copies at eBay and AbeBooks, or you could be lucky like I was, at Brotherhood Books.

Update Feb 2022: This title is now available through the Untapped Australian Literary Heritage Project.  It can be borrowed electronically through libraries and can be purchased in digital form from eBook sellers.  For details visit the Untapped website. 

Author: Alan Gould
Title: The Schoonermaster’s Dance
Cover illustration and design by Darian Causby, Harper Collins Design Studio
Publisher: Flamingo, Harper Collins (Australia), 2001 (first published 2000)
ISBN: 9780732266547, pbk., 269 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from BrotherhoodBooks.


  1. Has this post come at an opportune time. Just a week ago I had a good friend go absolutely ballistic at cafe staff and me when the coffee we met for ended up takeaway instead of sit down due to restrictions at the cafe. She finally crossed the line of my 100% involvement of having to listen to all her traumas of childhood ad infinitum. I walked away, got on a bus and came home to get messenger abuse all over once home. I’m enjoying the chart you put up because it is so apt. Never again. The book sounds fascinating and such an interesting storyline. I think more people than we know of could relate to this tale and post. 🍷🍷🍷


    • That sounds awful. I can’t stand it when adults throw tantrums, and about such a trivial thing too!


  2. I don’t get put upon. Must be my aura of standoffishness. A very thought provoking review. Do I know anyone who is so fanatical about a particular subject. I don’t think so though I know a couple who are totally absorbed in themselves.


    • You lucky man!
      It’s really hard when someone you otherwise like bangs on about something that I’m just not interested in. I mean, I take an interest in all my friend’s activities, but there are limits!
      (After all, I have learned not to earbash them about books.)


  3. I guess there’s always a certain curiosity about our antecedents but to get obsessed is another matter. With friends and theres it can be tricky though not as difficult as family members can be.
    I am fortunate in having one close confidante on love of reading who happens to be my eldest offspring. Lucky me.
    Your review has prompted my interest on this one though.
    Thanks for that reminder of not always being available all of the time as have been a prime candidate too often and learned the hard way.


    • LOL Don’t we all? I mean, it’s a natural instinct to be there for our friends, and most of the time, nearly always, it’s for our mutual benefit because we feel needed and wanted and useful. It’s that line that gets crossed sometimes, though, that can make us wary.


  4. Yes it is a fine line and have become more aware of as the ageing process goes on.


    • Well, speaking for myself, I was slow to recognise the traits of a controlling personality. The first time I saw her in a road rage, I thought it was ‘just’ anger and I was bewildered by it… I couldn’t quite believe that it was happening (except that it was so frightening). When you are surrounded by ordinary people who just don’t behave that way, you can’t quite get a grip on it because you’ve never seen it before. But by the time it happened again, 15 years later, I realised what it was, part of a suite of behaviours that are all predicated on that person’s need to control everything, and to always be right, and never to have any disagreements even about minor things.
      Fortunately I don’t need to have that person in my life, but when it’s someone you have to work with, then it’s really, really difficult.


  5. Think I’ll give this one a miss – I seem to be surrounded by older women obsessed with their family histories, and I find it so boring I want to run away screaming! Prior to covid19 the library computers were almost completely taken up by people researching on Instead I’ve been reading The Grass Library – what a delightful book – although I think I draw a line at the rat…


    • Yes, *chuckle* I had trouble empathising about the rat too.


  6. […] The Schoonermaster’s Dance (2000) by Alan Gould […]


  7. […] Alan Gould, The Schoonermaster’s Dance (novel, Lisa’s review); Dorothy Johnston, The Trojan dog […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: