Reviewed by E. B. Heath
An elderly deaf woman is alone on Dunk Island, North Queensland. It is 1923, her husband has just died, and she has no means of contacting the main land. She waits for three days before a passing boat comes to her aid. This is fact.
The woman is Bertha Banfield, her husband, Edmund Banfield, was a writer and journalist. After almost working himself to death as a reporter and political and environmental activist, he relocated to Dunk Island to live and write books about the solitary life at the behest of nature, one of which was Confessions of a Beachcomber. This was in the spirit of his hero Henry Thoreau, who in the mid nineteenth century built a cabin in the woods on his friend’s estate in Concord, Massachusetts, and wrote Waldon; or, Life in the Woods.
However, Mr. Banfield wasn’t exactly solitary since Dunk Island was home to a few Indigenous clans; his wife was also busily setting up home in their little cottage not far from the beach. Whereas Banfield made comment on the indigenous folk, his wife remained unacknowledged in his celebrated books of the time, not even in the form of a dedication; this would have been to keep up with the solitary image no doubt.
Time takes its revenge – Bertha is vindicated in The Beachcomber’s Wife. Adrian Mitchell comes to the rescue and gives Bertha a voice. Man-alone, surviving in nature is a familiar type, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s work to Bear Grylls (solitary man in the wild with camera crew). A wife living with, and her perspective on, solitary man in nature definitely adds a refreshingly new trope to this genre.
The basis for Mitchell’s narrative is gleaned from Banfield’s writing, and then re-imagined as historical fiction. Edmund becomes Edward and through Bertha’s point of view we learn about their life together and the inconsistent behaviour of her husband.
Mitchell writes in the first person, a soliloquy of thoughts that move seamlessly between Bertha’s current predicament, keeping an insect free vigil over a dead body, to recounting their individual and joint history; she evaluates her life with the beachcomber. The narrative begins immediately after Edwards’s death; his wife has built three signal fires on the beach and she waits for a passing boat.
Nothing. Nothing and nobody. … Today the sea, the sky, the light, have been moody and anxious. As have I. As am I.
The weather does a lot of work in this novel, setting and matching mood, as does everything in the environment, all described in Mitchell’s wonderful prose.
This entire beach is made of dead coral ground up fine, and crushed shells, and I am sitting on death. Stranded.
As she waits on the beach, stoking the signal fires, she remembers their first day landing at that spot. Her thoughts waft gently from topic to topic, past and present. Over the three days she covers her start in life, her mother in Liverpool, England, her one other love who died at sea. She thinks about her courtship with Edward, his early life, failing health, and his passionate obsessions, and she remembers the terrifying cyclones. During a near-death incident at sea, she was there, helping him survive, but never mentioned when he wrote of the incident, although the dog was featured.
It seems life with Edward was difficult. He was a man who valued his own opinions, not only discounting other ideas, but also becoming irate when an opposing view was expressed. She learnt to keep her own peace but wondered who was really the deaf one in the partnership. Her deafness was a problem everywhere else but the island, which made island living attractive for her.
… I disliked having to sit in a room full of lumpy tiresome women, … laughing and joking with each other, and showing their gums – like so many cannibals at a picnic.
In the voice of Bertha, Michell makes some thoughtful comments about deafness:
What I found was that I seemed to be living more and more inside a kind of envelope, the equivalent in sound of a darkening room.
Another interesting point made is how time melts away; the only division being night or day, the day of the week or month immaterial. Robyn Davidson, of Tracks fame, also noted the changing nature of time as she crossed Australia in the company of four camels and a dog. Time, for Robyn, became a calm undifferentiated blur.
This narrative is imaginative and beautifully told by Adrian Mitchell. He has an extensive writing pedigree, after retiring from an academic career at the University of Sydney, he remained as an honorary research associate in the Department of English. He has since published five books, featuring people and communities that deserve to be remembered. He has given voice to the forgotten. I cannot wait to read Plein Airs and Graces an earlier novel that was short-listed in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.
When reading The Beachcomber’s Wife I couldn’t help wondering how Bertha might feel. If I were she I’d be delighted. But, would she resent words being put in her mouth? It would be interesting to talk to Bertha; I do wish she had written a diary. I also worried about what she would do when death had been organised – would she stay on the island alone?
Maybe I got over-involved. But that’s the power of Mitchell’s writing.
By Adrian Mitchell
ISBN; 978 1 74305 455 0 (paperback)