The Burial is the debut novel from Courtney Collins, and it has been received well enough – short listings for the Stella Prize and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, a long-listing for the Dobbie – to earn her a place in Australia’s literary delegation to the UK.
The voice is a large part of its appeal, one suspects. Narrated by a dead baby who’s been buried in the earth, it might not surprise that a large part of the story concerns relationships with the earth: a part-Aboriginal stockman cum tracker, a city-trained policeman with his own destructive obsessions, and the heroine of the piece: outlaw Jessie Hickman.
Jessie is based on a real person, one who had a vague legendary status in the area of NSW where Collins grew up. Few details of her life were available, but there were police records and a mug shot.
Jessie was a circus rider, a wild child, a horse thief.
Her life in 1920s Australia, as imagined by Collins and recounted by Jessie’s dead child, is one of displacement and discomfort, of trying to find one’s place. For Jessie, that happiest place seems to be on horseback.
Backgrounding the tale is life in the rural back blocks, still a frontier post-World War I, with broken soldier settlers eking out their livings in the wild country, the law mistrusted by all, and women – those hardy few – getting the rough end of the stick.
It a place where Jessie is indentured to Fitz, whose brutal hold on Jessie sets up the core of the story: a protracted pursuit that gathers pace as the tracker and the copper get their act together, drawn together by their mutual history with Jessie, who wants only to be free — even if she isn’t entirely certain what that freedom might entail.
But it is the bush that is the major backdrop and a key character, shaping these lives on the edge of civilisation, offering both threat and succour.
Collins’s prose has a cadence, with drawn-out sentences clopping along with conjunctions to offer a folkloric, lyrical atmosphere. The sense of the tale being narrated in an otherworldly fashion is enhanced by the use of italics for dialogue, rather that punctuation marks. The story could have afforded to lose a few extraneous scenes, but overall it draws the reader on as pursuers and pursued head to their inevitable resolution.
There is, however, no historical conclusion to The Burial; with the focus on the environment and adapting to it, its conclusion possibly owes a debt to Picnic at Hanging Rock and that fascination with civilisation vs nature, that throwing off of social binds and embracing the environment. Certainly, The Burial is a worthy companion to that section of Australian literature that examines our place in this environment. I wonder what the Poms will make of it.