Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
This second novel by Meg Keneally has much in common with her first solo novel Fled. The early part of both novels is set in Britain at a time when the common people felt powerless, exploited by those with money and where survival was all a matter of chance. The second part of both stories sees the main character taking the perilous journey by boat to the new colony at the other end of the world. The main characters in both stories are brave women.
In both of these novels, Meg Keneally has thoroughly researched incidents from history and adapted the information discovered to create her storyline. In the novel Wreck, the author does state that, with the exception of the Peterloo Massacre depicted in the first chapter, nothing in this book is closely based on real people or events (367). The verse of poetry at the beginning of the book is from P.B. Shelley’s, The Mask of Anarchy, which he wrote in 1819 after word of the Peterloo un-necessary deaths had reached him in Italy.
However, similarities to other historical events such as The Cato Street Conspiracy, a failed rebellion in London and The Wreck of the Dunbar which occurred in 1857 near Sydney Harbour have found a place in this latest work. One of the main characters in the part of the story based in Australia owes something to Mary Reibey, the woman depicted on the Australian twenty-dollar note. Molly Thistle, in this novel, has much in common with the former convict who became a successful business- woman.
The main character, Sarah McCaffrey, is hardly what you would call a heroine. She is a young girl swept along by circumstances out of her control which leave her and her brother Sam without their parents and not knowing what will happen to them. A chance encounter sees them travelling to London where they become embroiled in an attempt to wreak revenge. Through luck, Sarah escapes arrest but after watching what happened to her brother and others she sails away from the place of her birth. For the rest of her life she lives in fear of being recognised.
This is a book about oppression, on both sides of the world. It is about deprivation and hopelessness, with people’s lives at the mercy of others. Yet it is also about support from unexpected places. This is about society and humanity and the building of a new society but unfortunately under the old assumptions and rules. Fortunately, there are those who are prepared to help the less fortunate. And what would any such novel be without relationships and love?
The author has a way of writing that is easy to read and her descriptions are graphic, especially as she describes the boat moving headlong towards disaster. It makes the reader realise just how hard life was for these earlier generations and just how much people can withstand in the quest for survival.
For me, the outstanding character was Molly Thistle, a small dynamo of a woman, who ran a profitable business in a man’s world and garnered respect from them all. She was tough but fair with an unexpected soft side. The male characters in the story played a supporting role to the two major women and most did not possess endearing characteristics.
The storyline is believable and interesting. The novel has been presented in two parts. Part One covers the story first in Manchester in August 1819, then Marylebone, London in May 1820 followed by a brief stop in Cape Town, July 1820. Part Two has the story continuing in Sydney, New South Wales in August 1820. Appropriately, this section is introduced with a verse from Henry Lawson’s poem The Wander-Light.
The Author Note and list of reference books followed by a set of questions would make this book an interesting read for a Book Club.
For more than ten years, Meg Keneally has worked in corporate affairs for listed financial services companies and doubles as a part-time Scuba diving instructor. She has been a co-author with her father, Tom Keneally, of The Soldier’s Curse, The Unmourned, The Power Game and The Ink Stain, the first four books in the Monsarrat series of historical murder mysteries. The fifth in the series, The Valley of the Swells (the first Monsarrat story to involve a serial killer), will be published in Australia in 2021.
Meg Keneally is making a name for herself as a successful solo writer where she does justice to the genre of historical novels.
By Meg Keneally