2017 Reviews · Australian · historical fiction · literary

New Release Book Review: Bridget Crack by Rachel Leary

Title: Bridget Crackbridget crack small

Author:  Rachel Leary

Published: August 1st 2017

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Pages: 320

Genres:  Fiction, Historical, Literary

RRP: $29.99

Rating: 4.5 stars

Van Diemen’s Land, 1826.

When Bridget Crack arrives in the colony, she is just grateful to be on dry land. But finding the life of an indentured domestic servant intolerable, she pushes back and is punished for her insubordination-sent from one place to another, each significantly worse than the last. Too late, she realises the place she has ended up is the worst of all: the ‘Interior,’ where the hard cases are sent-a brutally hard life with a cruel master, miles from civilisation.

She runs from there and finds herself imprisoned by the impenetrable Tasmanian wilderness. What she finds there-what finds her-is Matt Sheedy, a man on the run, who saves her from certain death. Her precarious existence among volatile and murderous bushrangers is a different kind of hell and, surrounded by roaring rivers and towering columns of rock, hunted by soldiers and at the mercy of killers, Bridget finds herself in an impossible situation. In the face of terrible darkness, what will she have to do to survive?

A gripping and moving story of a woman’s struggle for survival in a beautiful and brutal landscape, Bridget Crack is a unique and deeply accomplished novel by a rare talent.

My review:

An arresting and rousing story of the female convict experience in Van Diemen’s Land, in the early 1800’s, is the principal subject of new voice Rachel Leary’s first novel, Bridget Crack. This powerful historical fiction offering shows us how, in our not too distant past, survival in our new colony was a matter of pure endurance. Leary skilfully opens our eyes to the alluring but merciless landscape of early Tasmania that awaited our first settlers.

When a young woman by the name of Bridget Crack arrives on the shores of the newly established colony of Van Diemen’s Land, she is in awe of her new abode. The shock of this new life sets in when Bridget is first assigned to a position as a domestic servant. It does not take long for Bridget to earn the wrath of her employer for her apparent lack of subordination to the tasks that have been allocated to her. She is packed up from this position and is passed on from one place to another. Each situation seems to get progressively worse for our heroine. Then, Bridget lands herself in a truly awful place, a hell hole called the ‘Interior’. This is where the most hardened figures are sent. It is completely isolated and the poor souls who find themselves at this nightmare location are at the complete mercy of a cruel chief, who is focussed solely on making the convicts lives as miserable as possible. Bridget knows she will surely die at the Interior, as her spirit is slowly being broken down. She seizes the first opportunity she can to escape the Interior and falls into the company of a band of bushrangers. Initially, the bushrangers are a small form of comfort, but life on the run with the bushrangers is deeply dangerous and incredibly precarious. Bridget learns the brutal landscape of Van Diemen’s Land is as unforgivable as the figures that haunt her. It is a life that provides few options for a woman on the run, hence Bridget Crack must summon all the strength she can to survive.

It is always a lovely feeling to be introduced to a debut Australian female writer. It is an even better feeling when this new voice tackles a genre you love – Australian historical fiction.  Bridget Crack is a strong literary fiction title and a truly remarkable addition to Australian bookshelves. Bridget Crack is a book that left me a little winded to be honest, the preciseness of the prose in this novel is definitely unique for a writer just making her entrance into the publishing world.

Rachel Leary writes with a steady and determined voice. I really admired her approach to Bridget Crack, it offers a reflective tone, stark in places but with an emphasis on historical detail. The prose is grounded in the literary genre and comes across as well refined, which is in fitting with the character, period and physical surroundings of the environment.  Readers will notice that interactions in this novel are kept to a bare minimum, rather the setting and experiences of the main character speak volumes for this haunting story.

The sense of place is immediate and almost overwhelming from the outset of Bridget Crack. Leary’s imagery and pure setting descriptions bring to life an era in Australia’s past that was harsh and unforgiving. Through Leary, we are transported to the treacherous Van Diemen’s Land, a place populated by stunning mountain scenery and strange marsupials, but also convicts, bushrangers, soldiers and a handful of free settlers. Leary helps us see, through the eyes of Bridget, how tough life was at this time, if you were fortunate enough to survive such a time. Bridget’s experiences, especially when she is in the run with the bushrangers, is filled with moments of helplessness, pure terror and exhilaration, set against the backdrop of the wilds of Van Diemen’s Land. I was deeply impressed by the rich setting descriptions on behalf of Leary, she really seemed to capture the raw and contentious beauty of early Tasmania.

Bridget, our convict on the run, is the lead character in Rachael Leary’s novel. Supporting characters are kept at arm’s length, dipping in and out of the story with low overall impact on the narrative. This allows for Bridget’s gripping story to take centre stage.  I quickly found myself caring deeply for Bridget’s welfare. I hoped that she would succeed relatively unscathed in each different situation in which she was placed. I found myself on edge each time Bridget was moved to a new location, the tension was set very high by Leary. When Bridget finally broke free and found herself lost in the wilderness, I felt relieved for a short time, but then the white knuckle feeling re-emerged as Bridget faced new threats to her survival. When Bridget joins forces with the bushrangers, headed by a complex figure by the name of Matt Sheedy, her mortality and safety as a young woman travelling with dangerous men comes under threat. Leary does a fine job of relaying the pure dread of Bridget’s situation with the bushrangers and she closes her novel off in a fitting manner.

For readers such as myself, who have a keen interest in Australian history and the female convict experience in areas of Australia, such as Tasmania, Bridget Crack is an accomplished title that works to perfectly sum up the conditions these women faced landing on our shores. A few years ago I was able to visit a former female factory in Tasmania, which housed convicts such as our lead, Bridget Crack would have similarly experienced. I was astounded by the conditions in which these women faced, just to survive on a day-to-day basis. It gave me an appreciation for the genuine battle for survival that our pioneering settlers faced. Bridget Crack is a novel that serves to remind us of where we came from, it was not an easy life, but many made what they could with what they were presented with.  Bridget Crack is a thoughtful and historically well-informed novel that is an essential read for anyone with a passing interest in Australia’s past.

*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review via Goodreads and the publisher, Allen & Unwin.

Bridget Crack, by Rachel Leary was published in Australia on the 1st August 2017 by Allen & Unwin. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.

To learn more about the author of Bridget Crack, Rachel Leary, visit here.

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