Review Blog

Aug 27 2015

Voicing the dead by Gary Crew

cover image

Ford Street, [2015]. ISBN 9781925272055
Gary Crew is known for his interest in confronting historical events which form the basis for novels. In this tale, the author revisits a topic covered in an earlier work, being the true story of the wreck of the Charles Eaton on a reef in the Torres Strait in 1834.
A bold technique, described in the text as 'Lit tripping' enables the narrator, 14 year old Jack Ireland, (the voice of the dead) to time skip through centuries of literature, quoting passages to better describe the terrifying events which befall the crew and passengers from the vessel. Interestingly, whilst recounting events from the past, the character references authors writing long after his death, a style emphasising ghostly, tormented afterlife which may confuse some readers in this overly long story.
In a similar break from tradition, Crew reveals in the initial pages that the ship is wrecked and the crew and passengers are murdered by head-hunters. Together with an orphaned toddler William D'Oyley, ship's cabin boy Jack survives to tell his tale in a monstrously edited version produced by a London publisher in 1845.
Having revealed the plot and conclusion, the author skilfully entices the reader to accompany Jack from his appearance on the vessel whilst loading in London to undertaking the arduous journey to Tasmania where cargo and poor Irish orphans are delivered to Hobart's docks. During the passage, Jack struggles to establish his place in the ship, enjoying a privileged position as Captain's boy which causes tension with the seamen as he tends to both his master and the orphans who have endured grim suffering. Importantly, Jack comes to hero worship the thoroughly decent and brave First Mate, Mr. Clare, who will have great influence over the lad and the crew following the wreck.
Sailing North, the vessel passes into the Torres Strait, heading for Java when it strikes a reef, becoming so damaged that it has to be abandoned. A range of curious circumstances concerning the order of departure occur but the end result is that the passengers and most of the crew save themselves by building rafts which are washed up on shores inhabited by head-hunters.
The murderous savagery which follows is confronting and disturbing, to the extent that whilst admiring Crew's capacity to move and influence through words, I struggled to identify an appropriate readership given that the novel lacks depth for senior literary study. The plight of baby William, seeing his parents brutally beaten and beheaded is awful, but just one element amongst many hideous aspects which are sadly true. The passage of time should not inure the reader to suffering, especially in works designed for amusement and entertainment.
Rob Welsh
Editor's note: The publisher recommends it as Age 15+. Teacher's notes are available.

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