“If the dirt could speak, whose story would it tell?”
In her debut novel The Burial, Courtney Collins supposes that the earth would favour the stories of those who are furthest from it, ‘the ones who are suspended in flight’. The dirt must long for these distant stories the way a child yearns for an absent mother. Collins chooses to literalise this longing; her fictional tale about the historical Jessie Hickman, Australia’s last bushranger, is told through the dead eyes of Jessie’s newborn child.
The child’s voice delivers the novel’s moving beginning, breathtaking in its horror:
“In that first light of morning my body contorted and I saw my own fingers reaching up to her, desperate things. She held them and I felt them still and I felt them collapse. And then she said, Shhh, Shhh, my darling. And then she slit my throat.”
The infant narrator follows Jessie’s flight into the Hunter Valley. Jessie has just murdered her husband and buried her child. As we watch her struggle and ebb, she blends with the desolate landscape. She is constantly fleeing to higher and higher ground. There’s a hopelessness about her situation, and we sense that she is an already dead woman running. The Burial is a novel about the bare bones of survival, but with a glimpse of hope that peaks with her final escape.
Jessie’s back-story is trickled down through flashbacks, which are expertly interspersed with the arc of Jessie’s flight. Jessie had an eventful past – loved by her father but despised by her mother, at a very young age she was sold to a circus. When the circus disbands, she turns to cattle rustling, is arrested, and spends two years in gaol before she is sold to the man who will make her his wife.
Collins’ decision to tell Jessie’s story through her dead infant is an ambitious move, but not without its pitfalls. The first person narration is strong and rhythmic at the beginning, repeating the words ‘morning of my birth’ like a mantra. However, it is difficult for Collins to commit to the infant voice; it tends to drop away halfway through as the novel is given over to a third person style of narration, but resurfaces at certain points and resurges at the end.
Collins seems to spot that the infant narrator is problematic, and gives the newborn an underground adventure independent of Jessie’s own trials in the harsh scrub above. The infant converses with the forty-year-old corpse of a man buried just a foot below. The encounter reads as an attempt to legitimise the infant voice, but it ultimately does not add to the narrative power of the story. Although this meeting is grotesque and the corpse’s story adds to the gothic element of the novel, it would have been more worthwhile to develop the characters already part of the story.
The lack of depth is perhaps the major failing of the book. The Australian’s Tom Gilling made the apt observation that Collins’ characters “never quite come alive.” For example, Jessie is forced to marry the repulsive Fitz, but Fitz is a monster without motivation. He is a violent drunkard who is more cardboard than human. The reader cannot relate to him on any meaningful level, and this, in turn, colours the way we view Jessie in her dealings with him. Although the circumstances between them are terrifying, we feel somewhat removed.
The book itself is beautiful, and the short segments (never extending beyond a few pages) make The Burial a quick and engrossing read. But because each segment is so short, too many moments in the novel are made epic.
The Burial continually shifts focus; one moment, it is digging and stirring in the earth; another, it is gazing in wonder at the stars. The interplay between stargazing and earth dwelling shapes Jessie’s story, which takes place in the space between. She is elevated and legendary, earning a place amongst the stars of Australia’s gritty history. At the same time, she has an affinity with the land, and death relentlessly pursues her, pushing her ever closer to a burial of her own.
Yet, the space between earth and sky is disappointingly out of focus. While Collins gives us many snapshots of Jessie, we never have a clear picture. Jessie’s story leaves an imprint – the novel lingers for months after reading. Yet, (save for the opening scene) the novel lacks a sharp, visceral portrayal of Jessie’s anguish or love, the qualities that would make her human.
Jessie’s psyche remains a mystery. We are never truly admitted into Jessie’s thoughts, and although this is disheartening, perhaps it is ultimately the point. Jack Brown, Jessie’s Aboriginal lover, considers Jessie as “a shifting thing on the landscape.” Jessie is uncontainable, like trying to hold water in cupped hands.
Jessie resists death, capture, and even Jack Brown’s love. Her enigmatic nature makes her a blank canvas on which Collins can paint her own impressions. Unfortunately, such an illusory figure ultimately defies Collins’ own attempts to contain her through prose.
Courtney Collins’ The Burial is out now through Allen & Unwin. RRP $27.99
— Erin Handley is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Farrago, Right Now, in Brief and Mary Journal. You can follow her on Twitter @erinahandley.