Strange and beautiful: From the Wreck / Jane Rawson

Speculative fiction is by its very nature strange and unexpected. Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck is both of these and more. I’d heard of the title from various book lists and reviews yet I was reluctant to pick it up given its seemingly incongruous premise: a surreal blend of historical fiction and sci-fi. The history concerns the true life wreck of the steamship Admella off the South Australian coast in 1859. Rawson throws an alien life form into this intriguing and little-known historical event, and achieves a remarkable feat in uniting these concepts.

In many ways, From the Wreck concerns the ‘after’ of a dramatic event. At the conclusion of many books and films, I wonder how characters deal in that mythical after space – this applies in everything from chainsaw-horror films to the most devastating of war epics. How do individuals contend with the aftermath of violence and trauma? What about their loved ones and society at large? How willingly are these characters drawn back – or rejected – from the fold?

From the Wreck is (at surface level) the tale of George Hills, ancestor of author Jane Rawson. In the afterword, Rawson describes her decision in fictionalising Hills’ story post research into the wreck of the Admella. The value of immersive research is evident in Rawson’s depiction of a richly layered historical landscape that is never bogged down by restrictive detail. Rawson skilfully reveals nothing more than those crumbs required to appreciate the unfolding dramas of the characters.

After the horrific eight-day ordeal in which George Hills resorts to cannibalising deceased shipmates, he believes his saviour to be a mysterious woman known as Bridget Ledwith. Post-trauma, however, George considers Bridget a demonic figure who has come to haunt him:

‘On the ship… I only stayed alive because this woman-not-woman wrapped me in her naked flesh… my unholy bride.’

At various intervals, Rawson toys with the idea of women mythologised into witches and sirens when they are described by men. George attempts to seek out the intangible apparition he doubts is only a human woman, but his investigative efforts yield no fruit. Rather, the thing that was Bridget Ledwith has laid claim to George’s first-born son in the guise of a birthmark on his shoulder. Henry’s “Mark” shares otherworldly knowledge with the young boy. His haunted father, repulsed by his son’s apparent deformation, is determined to mutilate him and cut Mark from his skin, making for a truly visceral threat.

There is little question of the patriarchal George’s sanity. Rawson’s explanation of his mental state nudges magical realism, or even science fiction, if the creature is read at face value as an amorphous alien being. This is part of the magic of the book. From the Wreck is mainly a story about the ‘she’, this creature. Her true name unknown, ‘she’ is a kind of primordial, ethereal being who speaks from a place of absolute loneliness. She is a refugee in exile from another dimension following a cataclysmic fate that echoes Earth’s own potential future:

They built machines, giant, and chemical plants. They built walls in the water and broke the ocean into seas and then they pushed the seas aside. They filled the spaces with dirt and their big dirty footprints got bigger and bigger… now there wasn’t enough space to hold us… they murdered us by accident and by design.

She is surviving as an isolated organism without hope of returning home. The creature’s search for meaning where there is none is beautiful and tragic in its own right. Held up against the scale of the ship wreck, her loss seems more substantial, and her state of clinging to Henry is a desperate, lonely kind of refuge. Rawson might have opted for a violent exorcism-type narrative in From the Wreck – which George definitely drives – but the creature’s perspective lends the book a more poetic chord of yearning and loss.

I read From the Wreck in a single sitting. The rest of the world fell away. Lesson learnt: don’t be afraid to read something that sounds too weird.

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