Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 19, 2020

The Devil’s Eye, by Ian Townsend

The Devil’s Eye has been lurking on my TBR since 2008, but I was prompted to read it now because, like Vance Palmer’s Cyclone,  it’s listed as a novel featuring a cyclone in a book of LitCrit that I’m reading: Chrystopher Spicer’s Cyclone Country, the Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature.  Longlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2009, The Devil’s Eye is based on a real event: the 1899 catastrophic cyclone Mahina, which with a death toll of over 300 is still the deadliest tropical cyclone in Australian history.

This is the blurb:

It is 1899, and one of the fiercest storms in history is brewing – a hurricane named Mahina.

To a remote part of the Queensland coast come the hundreds of sails of the northern pearling fleets, and a native policeman trying to solve a murder. Nearly two thousand men, women and children are gathering around Cape Melville, right in the path of the storm that is about to cause Australia’s deadliest natural disaster.

Based on real events, this is the story of an unstoppable force of nature and the birth and death of an Australian dream.

The structure mirrors the way that 19th century weather forecasting across the vast distances of North Queensland was fragmentary and hampered by poor communications.  So it takes a little while to bring together the fractured threads of the narrative…

Centred on the pearling industry when pearls were an unpredictable by-product of collecting mother-of-pearl shell, a.k.a. nacre which was widely used at the time to inlay cutlery, jewellery boxes, buttons and jewellery — the novel brings together these issues:

  • The illegal pearl industry.  Shells and whatever’s inside them belong to the boss, but pearls get found and sold illegally to offshore buyers, obviously for less than they are worth, but the pearler gets a healthy ‘bonus’ instead of just his pay for the day.  Two characters are employed in the risky business of spying out these illegal transactions.   One of these is dead, or might be, but whether he is or not, he’s triggered an ‘investigation’ by the Native Police because he is said to have been speared.
  • Frontier conflict: the characters of Dr Walter Roth, Chief Protector of Aborigines, and Constable Jack Kenny, a Native Policeman, are alert to the irony that Roth’s job is to protect the Aborigines, and Kenny’s is to ‘pacify’ them.
  • Romance, and its complications: Maggie marries a pearler, dislikes his long absences at sea and decides to live on board with him and their baby Alice.  This leaves her father, the Chief Resident alone and frail on Thursday Island, so the unmarried older sister Hope is (as was common in those days) the obvious choice to be his carer.  But Hope has accepted an impulsive declaration of love from Kenny, from a difference social class and not in a position to support her. There are more complications than this spoiler-free summary, but the racial dilemmas introduce another interesting thread.  (The novel is rich in issues for book groups to discuss.)

There’s also an intriguing reference to a book called The Last Lemurian, which turns out to be a ‘Westralian Romance’ from 1898 by G. Firth Scott.  I discovered it at Project Gutenberg Australia, and scanned it to see why Constable Kenny would lend Hope his sister’s copy of it.  I hasten to say that I haven’t read it, and don’t intend to, but was fascinated to find this bit as I scrolled down the pages:

“All those shrivelled mummies were once vigorous men, like you and I. But she has sucked their life out of their bodies until they have become the wizened-up imps we know. Many of them may have come here as we came, in search of gold and wealth. How many bushmen have disappeared without leaving a trace behind them? Think of it. They may be among that swarm.”

His eyes glistened horribly as he spoke, and I reached out and took him by the hand.

“Go on with your story,” I said quietly. “Never mind the other part.”

“I was to be one of them, and should have been by this time, perhaps, had you not been at hand to save me. You have gained what I have lost, and it is the only card to play against her now. And since then you have done it again. Here. Just now. For since we were carried into this infernal place, she has once more drawn my vitality out of my being and made me the slave of her will—till you broke through her spell—and here am I; my God, what a fool!”

He sprang to his feet and flung away the gleaming yellow robe he was wearing.

“Take it off!” he shouted. “I had to make you wear it so that you should become impregnated with its properties and yield yourself to her wretched wiles. Take it off; it is bewitched.”

“Nonsense, man, nonsense,” I exclaimed. “How can a robe like this influence me? Besides, these sleeves are handy to hide my revolvers, and I may want to use them on the lady before I am through.”

What on earth was Kenny thinking of, eh?  And why has Townsend introduced this obscure thread?  I don’t know, but I do know that I wouldn’t have been able to identify it when The Devil’s Eye was published in 2008, because it wasn’t digitised at Gutenberg till 2011!

Anyway…

Woven through the events that bring these characters together are ominous references to the weather.  Humidity, dry lightning, unnaturally still seas alternating with whippets of wind, and a dawning awareness that a big storm is brewing.  And when it comes, it is horrendous.

In keeping with Spicer’s thesis about re-evaluation and renewal, there is this conversation at the end.  (I’ve substituted markers for names so that #NoSpoilers you can’t tell who survives and who doesn’t):

[He] looked along the beach, so calm now.  Apart from the wreckage, and the graves, and the torn and dead trees of course, not to mention the stench… well, perhaps one could guess that something terrible had happened here a month earlier.

‘Here we are,’ said [he]. ‘Back where we started.’

‘All good stories end where they start,’ said [his companion]. ‘You notice that? They start with a question, say, “Why does the porcupine have spines?” And then, after examining the essence of the porcupine and learning something of its character, the story comes to its conclusion — “and that’s why the porcupine has spines”.’

‘Why does the porcupine have spines?’ asked [he].

‘It doesn’t really matter.  When we return to where we were, we see it differently, having learned something new.’ (p.351)

Well, if there’s one thing we have all learned from the disaster that is 2020, it’s that now we know what really does matter…

Author: Ian Townsend
Title: The Devil’s Eye
Publisher: Fourth Estate, (Harper Collins), 2008
ISBN: 9780732283667
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $27.99

Availability: out of print, but if you’re quick there are three copies for $7-8 at Brotherhood Books. and it appears to be available for a Kindle at Amazon.


Responses

  1. […] Cyclone in advance of receiving Cyclone Country, but I put Spicer’s book aside to read Ian Townsend’s The Devil’s Eye from my TBR because I saw that it was listed in the appendix.   There’s another novel in his […]

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