If the world was fair and just Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck would win numerous awards, both literary and genre. Not that shiny trophies are the arbiter of great fiction, but they do draw attention to the nominees and this a novel that’s worthy of the hype and buzz regularly applied to lesser works. From the Wreck is an extraordinary piece of writing, in the way it blends genres, in the way its ambitions are matched by sublime prose, in the way it explores and questions life in all its varied states.
At first From the Wreck reads like a traditional historical novel. George Hills, a steward on the steamship Admella, is one of a handful of survivors when the hapless boat sinks off the South Australian coast in 1859*. A second survivor, who plays a significant hand in keeping George alive while they’re lost at sea for eight days, is Bridget Ledwith**. Years later and George who is married with children is haunted by what he and Bridget did to survive (which given they had no food or water should have been impossible). Bridget vanishes soon after reaching shore and George spends his free time trying to find her, hoping she will explain his fractured memories of those eight days at sea.
I’d rather not mention the primary genre element – though for your own safety KEEP AWAY FROM THE BLURB – not because it’s a twist, it’s introduced in the second chapter, but because the novel’s lens, so focussed on this one tragic sinking, abruptly widens its gaze, reminiscent of that famous final shot of “Men In Black” as the camera zooms out, in all its CGI glory, from a street on Earth to the Universe at large. And that abrupt shift generates a giddy sensation, an indication that this intimate story about a man dealing with post traumatic stress is something so much stranger and transcendent.
While the novel is always wonderful, it somehow finds another gear when Rawson’s discussion of the natural world bleeds into a meditation on mortality and the bounty of life. George’s son, Henry, is endlessly fascinated with the skeletons of dead animals, a collection of which he keeps hidden in the house. This fascination with death isn’t expressed in a dark or creepy manner, but as something complex and layered – inevitable and joyful and frightening and numinous. Or as Rawson beautifully puts it:
[Henry] plunged into the swarming ocean, felt its wriggling abundance. […] Henry felt his place in it – just to be this boy and never wonder why or who or how to be better, braver, otherwise. Just to be and to love. To notice it fresh every day. Not to fear it leaving; to know it always was and always will be, and that when this body stops and rots and makes itself food that still it will all go on just like this, just like always. Tiny tragedies, tiny triumphs and none of it meaning a thing against the great still monstrousness of forever and always. This always ocean, this always world, these always stars, this stretching, boundless, eternal universe. This quiet space.
The ease in which Rawson articulates complex thoughts around mortality and eternity, the way she seamlessly slides the narrative between historical and science fiction and how her characters – especially George – are as complex and flawed and brilliant as the themes Rawson’s tackling is, simply put, a master-class of storytelling.
I’m not saying that reading From The Wreck was a spiritual experience – because there’s only so much hype and I can slather on one book. But I truly doubt I’m going to read anything this year that as rich and deep and intelligent as this tremendous novel. And if I do it will be one helluva year.
** Also a real person and the only woman to survive the wreck. She even wrote a book about it.