Biographer, poet, and novelist Rodney Hall, British-born and Australia-bred, is best known in the U.S. for his highly praised novel Captivity Captive, a powerful account of family life in rural Australia. His new novel, The Second Bridegroom, is equally ambitious, though not as compelling. Set in 1838 during the convict era, it explores the moment of a nation’s founding. In doing so it bears only the slightest relation to conventional historical fiction.
Influenced by such masters of subjective narration as Joseph Conrad and William Faulkner, Hall creates complex layers of tellings and retellings. His narrator, an Irish felon transported for forging a 15th-century text, murders (or thinks he does) another convict, escapes into the bush where he is adopted by an aboriginal tribe, and eventually, following a tribal attack upon an English planter, is briefly returned to captivity. The narrative derives from his occasionally feverish and hallucinatory writings and reflections.
The novel as a whole contains an argument that seems a lot like the Australian version of political correctness. Hall’s convict hero engages in a dialogue with his reader on the relative claims of order and chaos. Order is England, empire, barns, houses, and white women. Chaos is the bush, squirming uncooked foods, nakedness, ecological rectitude, Nature. Hall comes down foursquare for chaos, or what he calls ”the savage side of the question,” and achieves some good effects, as when his hero, two years in the bush, confronts a fence and muses upon the meaning of cattle-chattel-capitalism.
All in all, the novel is ”difficult,” in the manner of much modernist fiction. Reading it in Sydney, I felt as though it resembled some furtive creature that looked almost familiar, but not quite. B