NetGalley offered The Roving Party in exchange for a review. This book is a literary western with magic realism elements. The story is simple enough. Set in the 1820’s Tasmania or Van Diemen’s Land, a roving party headed by John Batman set out to track and apprehend an aboriginal clan. Central to the story is an aborigine, Black Bill, who aids John in hunting those of his kind.
There isn’t much of a plot or page-turning action or dramatic character development. Instead we’re immersed in the dreary day to day of thugs tracking the “blacks”. Despite the slowness of the plot, the book does engage, mainly because Black Bill is such a mystery. Why would he hunt his own kind? How can he be stoic in the midst of such agressive racism? He is a difficult man to understand, but out of the merry band of thugs, he’s the most compassionate, amazingly enough.
Needless to say, if you’re looking for an easy story to read, this isn’t it. Racism is vicious and ugly and pervasive. Animals are killed without hesitation. Women and children aren’t spared from the cruel calculus of conquest. I didn’t know much about Tasmanian or Australian history before reading this. Oh dear, I know now. Black Bill’s a historical figure, as much as John Batman. They really did go out into the wild looking for aboriginal men to kill, sort of like white men in the American West hunting down Native Americans to kill and scalp–A bit like Blood Meridian, you say?
You’ll find a lot of a reviews that compare this book to Blood Meridian, and the comparison is apt. The prose shares a lot of Cormac McCarthy’s style in cadence, spareness, and emphasis on stark descriptions of the landscape. Dialogue is without punctuation, and the narrative voice exudes poetic omnipotence. However Rowan’s style does leave out McCarthy’s overbearing forcefulness of million-dollar words, paragraph long sentences strung together with ‘and’s, and the unrelenting nihilism of violence. I’m happy to report that Rowan Wilson doesn’t imitate McCarthy’s penchant of taking climatic showdowns off camera.
Ordinarily, this book would earn three stars because I had to make myself read through too many sections of men being inhumane. But the ending surprised me. I think it would surprise you too. The ending only bumps the book from three stars to four stars.
Unflinching and haunting sums it all: The Roving Party.