Blood in the Dust by Bill Swiggs

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Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Bill Swiggs’s writing style shows the influence of Wilbur Smith, whether Swiggs knows it or not, and that’s not a bad thing. Swiggs tells a comfortable tale if murder and bushranging combined with fraud and deceit can still be comfortable. It is Swiggs’s writing style that dispenses comfort. The reader knows that everything is going to turn out right in the end. But what is wrong with a bit of comfort on the ride from a family property through a cattle drive on its way to the Eureka Stockade, with a bit of fine romance thrown in as well. The whole thing allowed me to spend some pleasurable moments enjoying a comfortable journey.

There is an allusion I have made that I must clarify. I use the term ‘comfortable’. I do not for one moment suggest anything derogatory about my usage of that term. At the very opposite pole of this story lie the Scandinavian stories that describe ways of living that are so sparse that in describing them, writers have made their tales as black and uninviting as the rocks scored over many hundreds of years by glaciers. I am never comfortable with that style of writing. Swiggs, by contrast, has a slippers and dressing gown approach to his subject that I like very much.

Nevertheless, Swiggs does need to step outside and taste the breeze. Much of the material he uses to show the authenticity of his subject matter is pretty tired stuff. There are novels written about bush life that have very little if any value except as escapist literature. Among these are the tales of the lovely young things having to work as a jillaroo or governess who fall in love with a cowboy who is noticeably unsuitable to everybody except the young thing. But justice and true love wins out and all’s well. Bill Swiggs does not write that sort of lame, tired pulp fiction. He’s one of the few writers who makes even an attempt at picturing the bush.  However, the situations Swiggs describes are hackneyed versions of bush life. They might have been taken from any story simply by visiting a library. It is the writer’s style that saves him.

Bill Swiggs was brought up in Western Australia and has served the RAAF as an aviation firefighter, in the police force as one of their officers, and currently works as a firefighter for a defence contractor. He has got his hands dirty in the Australian bush. You won’t find any ‘love stories’ in the mould we too often see, but you will find a love that grows as strong as the roots of any gum tree and you will find the attraction between the boy and the girl growing steadily until each member of the couple is satisfied that their chosen partner is the right one. You will find a romance growing under the strict supervision of the girl’s parents. If there is a criticism it is that the character of the young girl is not developed quite enough.

There’s an authenticity about this writing. Never once do you forget that you’re in nineteenth century Australia. The narrator’s reports about the Eureka Stockade are as accurate as a novel will allow its author to have. The cattle drive breathes authenticity provided you can get your head around two teenagers taking responsibility for a 200 plus herd. That they come unstuck at the hands of a couple of ex-convict lags is not unsurprising.

I admit I was disappointed with the characters in this book. One of the leads is Toby O’Rourke. He shows he has the capacity to lead, he is met with respect among the decent folk and with disdain by those who show themselves to be his enemy. But we don’t see him really enjoying himself or going through trauma that tears his soul apart. I felt I was flicking past the pages where the boys were feeling devastated because, I suppose, I was never devastated for them. The emotions get a hammering, no doubt, but I’m afraid I was struck only by glancing blows. I’ve just finished reading Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot, who produced writing that left me gasping – raw emotion brought to the surface with writing that was unlike anything I’ve seen. While Bill Swiggs has written a novel and Eliot wrote a very long poem, there is common matter that might well be explored.

I will give Swiggs a very big ‘thank you’ for the aboriginal people in his yarn. Not only are their tracking skills authentic but the rationality of their judgments and Swiggs’s sensitivity to their culture were refreshing. He has worked with aborigines and has absorbed their culture to the extent required for this novel. I wonder how much that could have been used was not. I was satisfied, however.

I suppose I was disappointed that the story could have been so much more. I needed to feel the Australian bush, I wanted Toby to hurt a bit more. I wanted more to be made of the injury Toby’s brother suffered. I don’t doubt the pain he experienced whenever he tried to use his voice. I can’t comment on medical matters but I did feel a bit short-changed by the way this character was treated. He had the potential for so much more.

Bill Swiggs has written a readable book. Those readers who want a comfortable read about historical Australia and who don’t mind if some of the yarns or maybe a character or two are a bit clichéd, will enjoy this book. Those like me who want to see something a bit better will still be satisfied with the recount. The alternative is depressing.

Blood in the Dust

(2019)

By Bill Swiggs

Zaffre/A & U

ISBN: 978-1-83877-002-0

400pp; $29.99

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