An Unspoken Wager

Mutiny and violence on a remote island in the 18th Century, and murder in an expatriate Vietnamese community in Western Sydney

Issue #52, Sunday 15 October 2023

Want to Read

This is a simplified version of my earlier “Bookish News”. It will just feature new and upcoming books I’ve spotted which I’d really like to read.

Lola in the Mirror by Trent Dalton

Just released. Trent Dalton’s first two books, Boy Swallows Universe and All Our Shimmering Skies were both terrific, both ended up in my best 10 books of the year. So the release of a new novel by this Australian author has me very excited. A “must-buy” for me.

The Conversion by Amanda Lohrey

Due out on 31 October 2023. I really enjoyed Amanda Lohrey’s previous novel The Labyrinth, which won the Miles Franklin Award in 2012. So again I’m really looking forward to reading this one (and Text Publishing have kindly let me have a review copy).

He Who Drowned the World by Shelley Parker-Chan

This came out at the end of August this year. It’s the sequel to her debut novel She Who Became the Sun, which was excellent, a feminist take on one of China’s greatest emperors. Another “must read” but I probably won’t buy a copy as I borrowed the first one from the library and will do the same again. Another great Australian author to follow!

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

The Wager by David Grann

I recall my co-host Perry talking enthusiastically on our podcast some episodes ago about an earlier book by this writer, The Lost City of Z, which I haven't as yet read. David Grann is a journalist, a staff-writer for the New Yorker magazine, and has written several books. He seems to specialise in writing extremely engaging non-fiction narratives, so engaging that several of them either have been made into movies, or are in production, or planned to be made into movies. The other book of his that I'm thinking of is Killers of the Flower Moon, which is being made into a movie directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, due to be released later this year on Apple TV+. Sounds pretty good!

Anyway, this particular book, The Wager, is the first work of David Grann's that I've read, and I have to report that it was indeed excellent.

It tells the story of a doomed Royal Navy ship, H.M.S. The Wager, which was shipwrecked on a remote island off the coast of Chile in 1741. The ship had been part of a British squadron which was trying to intercept a Spanish treasure galleon. In trying to round Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America, the squadron had faced terrible storms. This area of the ocean is notorious for the terrible conditions, as winds and waves are concentrated by the gap between South America and Antarctica, which is only about 800 kilometres wide. The squadron was separated during the storms, which for weeks prevented them passing through the gap or reaching land, during which time the sailors one by one fell victim to scurvy, or lack of Vitamin C.

The Wager, under the command of its newly-appointed Captain David Cheap, was wrecked on the shore of a small island. Many of the crew died, but about 150 made it to shore. There, they managed to survive for some months, aided for a while by the kindness of a group of ocean-travelling indigenous people, whose help they stupidly squandered. Their unthinking ideas of "white supremacy" drove off the very people who were saving their lives. We've seen this many times before: I'm thinking of a book I reviewed here some time ago called Unknown Shore, set in the Arctic where the Europeans failed to understand how generous the Inuit were being to them. And of course similar things happened in Australia.

The survivors of The Wager were soon close to starving to death, and disputes soon arose about the leadership of Captain Cheap, eventually leading to a full-scale mutiny under the command of the ship's gunner, John Bulkely. After many months of desperation and violence, the majority of the men set off in a re-built version of the ship’s launch under the command of Bulkely, abandoning Cheap and a couple of others to their fates. This desperate group somehow managed to return to the Atlantic and civilisation, but not before losing many of their number.

Interestingly, there were two detailed journals written of the events on Wager Island, as the crew named it. One was by John Bulkely, attempting to justify his actions, and the other by the young John Byron, who survived to become the grandfather of the poet, George Gordon, Lord Byron. John Byron was one of those abandoned on the island with Captain Cheap.

The author, who has clearly done a heap of research, makes a detailed and gripping story of all of this, a tale which you read with as much interest as any thriller. The book's subtitle says it all, really: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder. You'll have to read the book to find out how it all turned out.

Highly recommended. Now I'll have to track down the other books by David Grann.

All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien

This novel won this year’s Davitt Award for Best Adult Novel. The Davitt Awards are for the best crime writing by Australian women authors, and often throw up some very good books of which I would otherwise not be aware. Sometimes however I don’t think they fit very comfortably in the crime genre. Last year one of the nominees was Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down, which I found very puzzling as it struck me very much as just the life-story of a woman who was eventually accused of a crime, but of which she was innocent. Bodies of Light won the Miles Franklin Award in 2022.

With this particular novel, All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien, I’m again left wondering a little. It’s true that there’s a crime in it, but it’s not really the focus of the book, and the solution is no great mystery. I suppose it all comes down to what you consider to be crime fiction.

So, setting all that aside, I did think this was an excellent piece of writing, and it certainly deserves some kind of award. The main focus of the book, though, is about the experience of Vietnamese immigrants in Australia, specifically the generation which came to Australia during and after the Vietnam War, and their children who were born or grew up here. The troubled relationships between these children and their parents, and their struggles to integrate into Australian society, are examined in detail through the characters. So too is the contrast between how the different generations deal with grief.

The book is set in the 1990s and told in the third person, largely through the eyes of Ky (pronounced “Key”) Tran, a woman in her early thirties, who has been working as a journalist in Melbourne. She has just returned to her parents’ home in Cabramatta, in Western Sydney, where she grew up, because her younger brother Denny has been killed. He was brutally bashed at a restaurant called Lucky 8, where he was attending an after-party after graduating from high school. Ky naturally wants to find out what happened, and why. However, the police don’t have any leads because literally no-one who was in the crowded restaurant will talk to them and tell them what they saw. Everyone, even the restaurant staff, claims that they were elsewhere or were looking the other way. No one saw anything, it seems. But a young boy is dead.

Nevertheless, trying to process her grief and her deep feeling of guilt—because she encouraged her parents to let Denny go to the after-party—Ky perseveres in trying to find out what happened to Denny. This is a long and frustrating process, because even though she is Vietnamese herself, for a long time no-one wants to tell her anything: the community has closed itself up, not wanting to admit that anything fundamental is wrong. But Ky becomes certain that Denny's death had something to do with the pervasive drug culture in the town, where heroin abuse was rampant. She turns out to be right, but not quite in the way she imagined.

While Ky’s investigations are going on, we get a number of flashbacks, both to Ky’s childhood and her relationship with her troubled best friend Minh Le (“Minnie”); to the lives of several adults born in Vietnam; and to the experiences of a Caucasian woman who taught Ky and Minnie. Through all of this we gain a deeper understanding of the difficulties faced by immigrants from Asian countries as they deal with the outright racism and unthinking assumptions of cultural superiority from White Australians.

I thought this was all very well-written, engaging and very informative. Definitely recommended.

Currently Reading

Blindness by José Saramago

José Saramago is a Portuguese writer, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. I’m listening to this as an audiobook from Audible and at present I am just over half-way through. It documents a mysterious plague which sends people completely blind. Panicked, the authorities shunt every infected person into various institutions such an abandoned madhouse. Inside, civil society quickly degenerates into anarchy, making this a very confronting and often unpleasant book to read. Still, I will persevere.

Impossible Creatures by Katherine Rundell

A very different book from the previous one: an entertaining middle-school level story full of fantasy and adventure. A lot of fun.

Waiting on the Shelf

And that’s all for this issue. See you next time!

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