Book review: The Commandant

The CommandantThe Commandant by Jessica Anderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jessica Anderson is someone who I’ve always meant to read more of but hadn’t managed to. Tirra Lirra By The River was loosely covered in my Eng Lit degree, and didn’t make much of an impression (probably because of my youthful inattention, frankly) but The Commandant, it turns out, is exceptional.

It’s one of the titles reissued in Text Publishing’s yellow-covered series of classics, and from the introduction I can see how the work might have been considered a bodice-ripper when it came out. Though – the off-screen appearance of shagging, if any, aside – it’s a disservice to call it such. It’s a meditation on early Australian history, as well as a forerunner of other such historical fiction as Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. It sits well with Patrick White’s Voss inasmuch as it takes history for its basis, and then adds to it, using invention as the magnifying glass for fact.

The titular character is a real person: Patrick Logan, commandant of the Moreton Bay penal colony. The book, more or less, is a portrait of the man – his hardness, his fierceness, his apparent strangeness – through the lens of the women of his life. Scratch that: it’s not just him that’s under the microscope: it’s the entire way of life the Crown has transplanted to the arse end of the world, and how unsuited to existence here the settlers and convicts are.

Not pictured: dead convicts.

Logan’s wife, Lettie O’Beirne, is given a fictional sister, Frances, who is as unformed and prone to enthusiasm as the colony itself. She comes to Moreton Bay to join her sister, following an intersection with some Jacobite followers, adding a bit of political grounding to her arrival. Her grasp of etiquette is mirrored in the ramshackle, almost horseless way the penal colony is run; there’s convicts with behaviours above their station, drunken doctors, and the tension that comes from trying to do too much without enough raw material.

At its heart, the book examines whether the colonists and their charges should be there at all. There’s a heavy trepidation to any journeys outside the camp, and an oppression within. The bush is unknowable and full of dangers, and everywhere, there’s intimations of death. It’s a pungent, noisome thing, this life, and Anderson communicates well the dreamlike daze one must have felt to wash up on these shores, so different and distant from ‘home’.

The important part of this novel, I think – and something that’s also key to The Proposition, the Nick Cave-penned film that has a dark view of flogging-led colonial governance – is that everyone in it is flawed in some way. There’s the servant whose truculence is undercut with scars on her neck; the wife who sees the problems in her husband and tries to ignore them; officers who try to warn Logan of the effects of his actions but lose nerve at the last minute, and the doctor who has escaped indiscretion through distance and drink. Everyone is broken, and their inability to function as expected cannot help but inform their surrounds.

It could be argued the same applies to Australia today.

I wholeheartedly enjoyed this. While the broad strokes of Logan’s death are known ahead of reading, there’s a lot in here for you to discover, particularly if you’re interested in the distinctly unheroic story – a little chamfered, for narrative effect – of early Australian life.

(One final note: I found it almost impossible to read The Commandant without hearing The Drones’ ’16 Straws’ in my head. It’s a song that adapts the convict song ‘Moreton Bay’ and adds in a bit more Logan spice, including elements that occur in the text. It’s worth a listen.)

My Goodreads reviews are here.

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