Jane Rawson has made her name as an author by playfully eluding genre conventions. Her quirk-riddled 2013 debut novel, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, hinged on a distinctly magical premise, while 2015 novella Formaldehyde earned praise for its slippery inventiveness.
Her second novel follows suit, with one foot grounded in well-documented Australian history and the other unmoored from reality altogether. Inspired by the 1859 crash of the Admella passenger steamship, which claimed eighty-nine lives after the vessel struck a submerged reef off the coast of South Australia, From the Wreck takes its name from Adam Gordon Lindsay’s subsequent poem about the famous maritime disaster.
But Rawson isn’t interested in a straight historical account, even within the realm of fiction. (Besides working as a journalist, she’s co-written a non-fiction book dealing with climate change.) Instead she uses the real-life story of one of the few people to walk away from the shipwreck—twenty-four-year-old cabin steward George Hills, who is in fact her great great grandfather—as the impetus for a vividly imagined meditation on survivor guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Due to a terrible combination of intense storms and broken communication, those who survived the Admella’s crash were stranded at sea for more than a week before a lifeboat from Portland, Victoria, finally rescued the remaining nineteen people who hadn’t drowned or died from exposure by then. That feat of survival is miraculous in its own right, but for Rawson it inspires a far-out tale that borrows from science fiction while staying emotionally true to the source material.
In Rawson’s reimagining, George Hills manages to live through the ordeal with the help of an alien life form, itself stranded on Earth after falling into our dimension from another and losing track of fellow members of its race. Capable of shape-shifting as well as psychic communion with certain creatures, the alien takes the form of a female passenger on the Admella. After a creepy early encounter with George, who immediately recognises her as something other than human, the alien clings to him and helps sustain him after the shipwreck. That includes encouraging cannibalism, which ends up haunting George nearly as much as this mysterious creature who disappears once back on land only to insinuate herself back into his life, intentionally and otherwise, for years to come.
Rawson writes with both a blackly comic edge and a palpable lust for sensations. “I don’t even know who to eat,” complains the alien when it is first faced with the mysteries of life on Earth, while its process of finding a form to adopt is realised in ripe language:
I move, slow-shifting, sand-like, across the land until I meet rock and then I am shifting even slower, rock-shaped and rock-like, but oh rock moves so slow so slow and so I have to take the shape of another.
Swapping between the alien’s perspective and those of several key characters, Rawson isn’t as concerned with the actual science of this alien life form as with the psychology and philosophy of it. How can it hope to fit in on our world, when so many humans can’t even manage it? She sympathises with this other race’s fruitless quest for a suitable home—“We found a billion realities where we could be so impossible as to cease existing”—while playing up the whiffs of the primordial that ushered human life to where it’s come since.
When told from this perspective, the book strongly evokes Michael Faber’s powerfully unsettling 2000 novel Under the Skin, which also followed an alien being’s difficult attempts to pass as a human female. Rawson’s alien is not the central focus here, however, but rather the catalyst for George’s lasting trauma and just as much so his damaged relationship with his eldest son Henry, to whom the alien attaches herself shortly after his birth.
Once rescued, George returns to his fiancée “broke and broken”, settling in the new colony of Port Adelaide to start a family and try to go about his life. Still wracked with shock, George proves himself capable of some shape-shifting of his own: “He took the pieces of his face and shaped them into a smile for her.” He’s plagued by dislocating flashbacks and lapses in attention, with Rawson heralding the transition from sea to land again with rich primordial undertones. His condition only worsens as he ages, and George turns to alcohol for coping while stepping up his desperate search for the woman—or thing—that saved him.
If all of that sounds like hopelessly grim reading, Rawson introduces a lot of humanity, not to mention pointed humour, in the wider cast of characters. That includes eccentric widower Beatrice Gallwey, who’s been saddled with her unwanted infant grandson: “Bea tried not to let the fact of a baby in the house get too much in the way of her plans.” Beatrice remains mostly a peripheral presence, and while she’s by no means essential to the basic plot, she does help to leaven what might otherwise be at times an oppressive story.
As for young Henry, like his father he’s deprived of the innocence of so many of his fellow humans. Granted horrifying realistic visions by the alien, he collects animal skeletons and rotting debris in a closet and generally fosters a fearful imagination: “Henry could feel a mountain of corpses shifting inside him, the wet bodies of a billion slaughtered creatures.” Even without the alien contributing, he remains troubled by the same sprawling list of anxieties as any Australian child, be it in the 1800s or today: playing cricket, learning his times tables and, yes, the uncomfortable prospect of getting “the talk” from his father.
What Rawson does so well here is capture such common challenges and imbue them with supernatural resonance. Many children experience enough of a gulf between themselves and their parents to consider running away from home, but Rawson complicates those mundane rites of passage with plot turns both exaggerated and all too down-to-earth. In fact, some of the more tragic events come from the Hills family’s actual history rather than the author’s imagination.
Despite its period setting, From the Wreck is as an evergreen fable about self-inflicted suffering, whether through guilt or other ways of torturing ourselves. The book may divide its focus quite a bit, and could certainly have been fleshed out more in several facets, but Rawson handles this unusual mix of atmospheric history and hungrily curious sci-fi with a steady hand. Even her most offbeat rich language is employed in the trusted service of the fraught emotional territory in which she’s so interested and so invested.
This is indeed a story about survival, but even more so the cost of survival – not just in extreme circumstances, but simply from day to day. As George mulls at one point: “Had he really to live once more? How could such a thing be possible?”
Doug Wallen is a freelance arts journalist based in Beechworth, Victoria. His work has appeared in Australian Book Review, The Australian, and The Big Issue.