Review Blog

Feb 27 2014

The first voyage by Allan Baillie

cover image

Puffin, 2014. ISBN 9780143307679.
Set in the Stone Age, this novel considers how ancient people were able to migrate to the land mass referred to as Sahul (comprising Australia and New Guinea), the coastlines of which extended much further and which have significantly altered with the passing of the Ice Age.
In Timor, the violently aggressive Crocodile tribe seek to drive the small Yam tribe from the island by opportunistically killing members and trying to provoke battles. Left with nowhere to run and hide, the Yam tribe is doomed unless new territory is discovered and the leader, Eagle Eye chooses to follow migrating birds to a new land. The tribe must find materials and learn how to build and provision rafts for what would have been a terrifying voyage into the unknown.
Told from the perspective of young adolescent warrior Bent Beak, the story cleverly mirrors the experience of present day refugees who are prepared to risk their own and their children's lives on a perilous journey in order to escape violence and death.
Bailey has a considerable freedom to imagine the circumstances and actions of these ancient people and he writes with a great deal of humanity, prompting the reader to deeply consider the plight of desperate people. The nature of leadership is revealed, with Eagle Eye having almost no power to change anything whilst saddled with the responsibility of choosing the best outcome for his people. Ingenuity, group cooperation, roles and relationships are features of this tale which helps us to visualise the enormous task faced by those who came to inhabit our land.
This is a good book for young teenagers yet many will struggle to understand the massive geographical change which made the journey possible. The book's blurb is confusing, stating that it is set 30,000 years ago which does not seem to match the setting or title given the existence of Homo Sapiens in Australia for a minimum 40,000 years. However the 'first voyage' may refer to people venturing from this particular region. Similarly some readers may not comprehend the author's depiction of megafauna including a diprotodon which does not fit the era. The novel would have benefitted from a comprehensive foreword with better diagrams and information than are provided in the brief postscript. This may help young readers to visualise the arrival of ancient ancestors from various regions, joining others already here, by means of island hopping taking place over a huge time scale.
Rob Welsh

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