Voicing the Dead
by Gary Crew
This book is a fine example of how readers can be compelled to question long-standing principles of how history is recorded. The story is based on fact, narrated by 16-year-old Jack Ireland, one of only two survivors from the wreck of the ill-fated Charles Eaton, which sank in 1834 when swept onto treacherous reefs in Torres Strait. Jack, who was Captain Moore’s ‘best boy’, could not only read and write but also had a unique talent for ‘literature tripping’ – an ability to recognise parallels between the events outlined in various books and what was happening in his own life. The technique draws the reader into a rich literary landscape, while telling a thrilling and at times horrific tale of headhunters, slavery and survival.
Gary Crew lays out his intentions from the outset: ‘All that has been told of the events of [Jack’s] life must be reconsidered, recreated and recounted and if I am to tell [Jack’s] tale in truth, I must give voice to all the dead.’
So here we have a historical fiction in which Jack gives voice to previously invisible characters: women are present and not hidden behind men, and Irish orphans are heard and stand on the same deck as the children of the wealthy. Even the islanders take centre stage, despite having no written language. Everyone who was not recognised in the historical records of the day has been given a voice. This technique leads the reader to approach all historical documents with greater suspicion and think more deeply about their origins and intentions.
Jack tells a gripping tale of shipwreck, including the horror at seeing so many of the crew bludgeoned and beheaded. Upon his rescue, despite his horrific ordeal, he views his saviours with disdain as they destroy the island where headhunters built a shrine to honour the heads of the dead. Jack now realises that ‘civilised’ people can be as barbaric and ignorant as those less fortunate.
This novel is a great work of art that incorporates that unique Gary Crew spin that leaves the reader a little bit uncomfortable but much wiser. Voicing the Dead is one of those rare novels that should be studied in secondary schools and creative writing courses for its unique approach to reviving a long forgotten part of Australian maritime history.
5 stars – Ford Street
Reviewed by Robyn Donoghue
Age guide 15+