Hybrid Heroes

Janette Turner Hospital

  • The Conversations at Curlow Creek by David Malouf
    Chatto, 214 pp, £14.99, September 1996, ISBN 0 7011 6571 5

Almost forty years after the first European settlers pitched their tents at Sydney Cove, two men spend the night in a bush hut beside a creek on the inland side of the coastal range. Between sleeping and dreaming, the men talk intermittently until dawn. One of them, Michael Adair, is an officer in the penal colony’s regimental corps, and has just spent 48 hours in the saddle, riding up from the coast at the express orders of the Governor of New South Wales in order to oversee the hanging of the other man at dawn. The prisoner, Daniel Carney, guarded by the three troopers who captured him, is an escaped convict turned bushranger, the last man of the legendary Dolan gang whose other four members were gunned down nine days earlier. There has been no trial. In order to avoid any possible stirring of Irish anger or rebellion, Carney has been sentenced by Government House fiat to a swift death, in secrecy. Both executioner and condemned man are Irish.

During the night, while officer and felon talk, the three troopers and their black-tracker Jonas, bivouacked a stone’s throw away, have discussions of their own; each of the six men also communes with his own private memories and demons, so that sundry pasts in the Old World are evoked, as well as the raw present in the New, and the nature of justice – and rough justice – in both worlds is pondered, as is the nature of love, the nature of male bonding, the meaning of life and death. All these deliberations, both shared and inward, constitute the conversations at Curlow Creek.

The year is 1827, by which time the population of New South Wales is somewhere around 25,000, of whom two-thirds are convicts. Executive power is in the hands of Sir Ralph Darling, seventh governor of the colony. These facts are not mentioned, but are historically relevant to the action of the novel, since Darling earned a reputation as a stickler for upholding the King’s authority, and therefore implemented harsh measures against escaped convicts and against the Irish in general, fearing as he did (and as the free settlers did) a repeat of the 1804 uprising at Toongabbie, when about three hundred Irish convicts screaming ‘Death or Liberty’ turned on the officers who guarded them. The leaders of that rebellion were tricked into surrender, and the uprising brutally suppressed by government troops, but a legacy of fear about escaped convicts – particularly Irish ones – continued, and went hand in hand with the burgeoning folk romance of the bushranger, the colony’s own mythicised hybrid hero, a cross between a thuggish highwayman and Robin Hood.

The bushranger, as a symbol of the idea of liberty and of the possibility of defiance against a harsh penal code, was eventually to settle into the more-or-less-actual gigantic contours of Ned Kelly, a genuine wild colonial boy of Irish stock. Kelly was hanged as a felon in Melbourne on 11 November 1880, but his soul has gone marching on into immortality and into folk songs, literature and art. Though he lived fifty years later than the fictional characters in this novel, it is nevertheless against the backdrop of his bulky shadow that Malouf’s Carney and his Fergus/Dolan and Adair/O’Dare move, and are, at book’s end, transfigured and assumed into myth.

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