Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The past is a dusty window

Working on A Hangman for Ghosts, I'm put in mind of the strangeness of historical fiction. All histories carry particular views; all stories strive to make you see, but how can we make that picture seem complete and compelling?

A Hangman for Ghosts opens on the outermost bounds of the Empire: the prison colony in New South Wales which eventually became the city of Sydney, Australia. Anyone interested in this history knows Robert Hughes's magisterial The Fatal Shore, but Hughes's vivid history of the convict period is a story of administrative cruelty, of transportation, exile and suffering, dispossession, forced labour, hangings and the lash. Grace Karskens, in her new history of Sydney, The Colony, tells the same story quite differently. She focuses on the material development of the colony, the landscape, the story of convicts, emancipists, administrators and settlers who strove to adjust, survive and prosper, and set the foundations of a new nation in a strange landscape.

As a writer working on an historical mystery, I need to drag a story out of this research, to form these different views into one narrative. I want to imagine early Sydney, understand its topography, its bustling, conflicted society, its gaols, barracks, pubs and gallows, its farms and roads and grand houses in their own light, as a lived experience. But the past is a dusty window: we swipe at the pane, we see shapes, motion, flashes of light, activity, human drama unfolding and flowing, but always dim and strange and a little distant.