1819, Manchester. Sarah McCaffrey and her mother Emily attend a talk at St Peter’s Field by the renowned orator and reformist Harold Hartford (a fictional character based on Henry Hunt). The establishment, wary of the revolutionary sentiments growing among the poorer working classes in the shadow of the French Revolution some twenty years earlier, have outlawed attendance at the talk, but Sarah and her family are among the sixty to one hundred thousand who attend. When the Hussars are dispatched to break up the gathering, a massacre ensues and Sarah’s mother and father are among the casualties.
Amid their grief, Sarah and her brother Sam are singled out by a man named Briardown who has been building cells of dissenting citizens who wish to bring about reform in English by violent means. Sarah’s involvement in one of these groups will change her life forever, and see her fleeing England for her life aboard The Serpent after her co-conspirators are caught and hanged. Passage aboard The Serpent may itself be a death sentence. The careless actions of a member of the crew see their vessel make a dangerous voyage through treacherous conditions. As the only survivor of the wreckage, Sarah must make a new life for herself in Sydney, and realise that there are more ways than one to change things.
Once again, Meg Keneally has presented a fully realised historical portrait of the early days of convict Australia. The novel is split into two parts; the story of Sarah’s life in England, her voyage at sea and the shipwreck itself make up the first half of the book, and her life after she is rescued, the second. These two parts are both captivating stories, centring the eponymous wreck of the novel as the turning point of Sarah’s life.
It is clear that Keneally has done a lot of research into maritime matters, the scene in which the ship is destroyed are some of the most vivid and terrifying I have ever read. Based on the real life wrecking of the Dunbar in 1857 – the deadliest wreck in New South Wales’ history – the description of bodies (and parts of bodies) floating in the water provide a haunting coda to the action at the end of part one.
Sarah, as the only survivor, grows and changes as a character once she reaches Sydney and is taken under the wing of Mrs Thistle, herself a former convict but now seems to own half the businesses in the town. A strong willed and compassionate character, Sarah’s relationships with Mrs Thistle and Nell, a ‘woman of easy virtue’ whom she meets in the infirmary, show the power of the connections made by women at the time.
A number of scenes also work to show the precariousness of a woman’s position in the colonies. This is aptly highlighted through the murder of a number of prostitutes, and the resentment that is directed towards Mrs Thistle, whose wealth seems to draw more ire than that of her male counterparts because of her sex. Despite the challenges she faces, and the looming threat that she will be discovered by the superintendent and tried for her involvement in the failed uprising, Sarah is a loyal friend and has a good moral compass. She is a character to root for and the beating heart of this novel.
If you enjoyed Meg Keneally’s previous novel, Fled, then you will find The Wreck an exciting and entertaining follow up. It’s full of rich historical detail, compelling writing and all the seafaring detail you could possibly hope for.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Meg Keneally’s The Wreck is available now through Echo Publishing. You can order your copy from Booktopia HERE.