The Incredible Life of Hubert Wilkins by Peter FitzSimons

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

There is a slight chance that someone has come across Peter FitzSimons’ writing for the first time with the publication of his latest book The Incredible Life of Hubert Wilkins. This is part of the book’s title, the remainder “Australia’s Greatest Explorer” I find an unconscionable thing to write. FitzSimons is not a novice writer and he must know that such an appellation is open to challenge and, I believe, requiring evidence that leaves no doubt about the claim’s veracity. FitzSimons has provided no such impartial advice.

I believe there is no need to detail Peter FitzSimons’ career as a person of note. His public profile is high, he writes a book virtually every year and, unashamedly, employs a team of researchers to gather the data from which he creates his stories. I like most of FitzSimons’ work. I admire his public presence and the sensible practical advice he offers when he teams with television personalities. I have read Monash’s Masterpiece and noted with disappointment, its dance into hyperbole (i.e., Hamel was ‘93 minutes that changed the world’). Some theoretical physicists will claim that hanging out my sheets also changes the world, but no matter.

Breaker Morant was competently written and I can accept the conclusions FitzSimons reached regarding the execution of Morant and Hancock, although the cowardice of General Kitchener, even at this remove, stirs my anger. Breaker Morant was the first occasion that I noticed FitzSimons’ adoption of the phrase ‘Australia’s greatest storyteller’, a distinction some unthinking journalist casually conferred and which FitzSimons has adopted.

What of the latest book? I wish I could enthuse over the dialogue, the plot, the settings and so on, but I can’t. To say that FitzSimons is an uneven writer might be fair but, in the context of this book, not strong enough. This story is no more than a string of events flung together with no purpose other than to have them on the record. Wilkins appears as a person with no roots and no intention of growing any. He jerks at the whim of a puppet master. His exploits (which FitzSimons appears to regard as courageous) are often dangerous and foolish.

Probably the most disappointing aspect of this very weak story is in the characterisation of Hubert Wilkins. He is portrayed as a Gandhi, a Jesus of Nazareth and the greatest handyman of all times. He is allowed no weaknesses. As a result, he is unconvincing. FitzSimons exaggerates in a grand manner, telling his readers, for example, that Hubert is well on the way to solving the problems of climate change.

The story has a high proportion of ‘telling’. There is little opportunity for Wilkins’ actions to communicate what FitzSimons is fixated on telling.  It is hard to guess a writer’s motives, but I believe one can be excused for thinking that Wilkins’ confusion over ‘Arctic/Antarctic’ was written into the script to demonstrate how adaptable to altered circumstances our hero is. The alternative explanation is that Wilkins is a careless fool.

Opening the book at random, I come upon pages 302 and 303, where Wilkins meets the Yidiny people. A dialogue ensues with an indigenous couple, and later, the tribe. In books, interrelationships between one people and another, as described by FitzSimons, occur in overwhelming numbers. The point is that FitzSimons writing has grown stale and his situations stereotypical. It’s time to get off the treadmill and gather ideas in a totally fresh environment. In a final attempt, I open at page 425 and I find the same grandiose treatment, the same overwriting that has plagued me since I opened the book.

It’s time for me to close it and move on.

The Incredible Life of Hubert Wilkins

(2021)

By Peter FitzSimons

Hachette Australia

ISBN: 9780733645761

$49.99; 578 pp

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