Reviewed by Ian Lipke
The cover of Breaker Morant reveals that Peter Fitzsimons is Australia’s bestselling non-fiction writer as well as Australia’s greatest storyteller. Grand statements, indeed. (I wonder what Henry Lawson might have thought!) Readers, however casual, cannot fail to see the thirty pages of Endnotes, the five-page bibliography, and the twelve-page index, each reinforcing the impression that the book is a biography of Breaker Morant and is the work of Australia’s bestselling non-fiction writer.
The issue of research requires mention. Fitzsimons acknowledges the intricate and extensive work that his team of researchers does. Whoever they are, it must be said that they display skills at the level expected of Ph Ds. The Endnotes define precisely from where a particular idea was presented and the link between the Endnote reference and the entry in the main text is very clear. Fitzsimons and his team cover this aspect of the task with rare skill. But not without question. If Chapter 12 is taken as an example, of the ninety-one Notes, thirty-one come from West and Roper’s book, twenty-three are extracted from Witton, and seventeen from Davey. That is, seventy-one of the ninety-one references in the randomly selected chapter have been taken from three books. Moreover, I would question the impartiality of Witton, given his close and personal association with the trial proceedings.
But it doesn’t matter. Just as Alison Weir has created a six-volume series on the wives of Henry VIII, so has Fitzsimons taken respectable history and turned it into fiction. In his book Monash’s Masterpiece, Fitzsimons explained that:
I have tried to bring the story part of this history alive, by putting the whole account in present tense, and constructing it in the manner of a novel, albeit with 1000 odd footnotes as the pinpoint pillars on which the story rests…I have occasionally created a direct quote from reported speech in a newspaper, diary or letter, and changed pronouns and tenses to put that reported speech in the present tense, every now and then assuming generic emotions where it [sic] is obvious…Always, my goal has been to determine what were the words used, based on the documentary evidence presented, and what the feel of the situation was (viii).
In short, if historical fact is insufficiently exciting, ‘ginger-it-up’ with some generic emotion – but realise that non-fiction is no longer the chosen genre.
Since he has been open and honest, I have no problem with Fitzsimons’s writing history in this way. If his present book looks like a history book, reads like a history book, and has historical characters like a history book, it’s a history book.
Only it isn’t.
It’s a biography. Its title is Breaker Morant. “The epic story of the Boer War and Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant: drover, horseman, bush poet – murderer or hero? … Peter Fitzsimons unravels the many myths and fictions that surround the life of Harry Morant” (Media Release).
Clearly, a biography.
Except it isn’t.
The first two-hundred-and-seventy-eight pages contain at least a mention of Morant’s name on only thirty-one pages. Morant’s biography occupies only eleven per cent of the available space, the remainder being a story about the Boer War. Only the last half of the book focuses on Morant. It’s a stretch to call the book a biography. In support of this viewpoint is the lack of extensive discussion of the Breaker’s childhood.
Let’s settle on speculative historical fiction. This would allow such statements as, “It’s a tough decision, but Colonel Thorneycroft believes he has no choice” (69), which would be anathema to an academic historian, to pass through to the keeper (as Fitzsimons might say).
The author’s word usage and sentence structure need to be investigated. Attempts to overlay sentences with poetic rhythm appear forced, effect-seeking. Consider, “A contradictory man of demonstrable charm and harm, verve and swerve, poise and noise, he is prone to attracting more mixed reviews than a touring troupe of Shakespeare thespians north of Townsville” (3). On occasion, when a particularly sad event has occurred, the author will inject a burst of humour that is quite out of place. Having said that, most of the humour is highly entertaining and delightful.
Breaker Morant is a book that is different. It must be read on the author’s terms. It is written in a style that can sweep you away with its power and poetry, intoxicated and inspired, favoured but forgetful that this is now fiction, a speculative survey of a war and a man, observed through the sapient eye of Australia’s greatest storyteller.
A conversation-starter this one!
By Peter Fitzsimons
$49.99; 578 pp