Rohan Wilson’s second novel, To Name those Lost is set around an apocalyptic Launceston in 1874. The riots that occurred in real life, following the call from the government for citizens to bail out a collapsed railway company, reduced the citizens to violence. This provides a sharp backdrop to the story of two fathers and their children - and redemption, retribution, loss and survival.
Opening with the death of destitute twelve year old William Toosey’s mother, and the doctor’s demand he pay him a fee for merely pronouncing the woman dead, within pages the author has William’s father, Thomas nearly bashing his captor to death.
Toosey senior has a ransom on his head and escapes to find his son, who he knows is now alone in the world. In turn he is pursued by the Irish, Fitheal Flynn. Flynn is travelling with a hooded, gimp-like character, who is revealed to be his maimed daughter Caislynn. Her head is covered as she seems to be deformed but the how and what of the deformity remains one of the book’s many intrigues until the end. Toosey has robbed Flynn and his three daughters of 200 quid and that money provides a backbone for the narrative.
Wilson’s first novel, The Roving Party won The Vogel Prize in manuscript form and had a similar darkness and setting. It is testament to Wilson’s skills as a writer that the two novels so close in subject matter are so different. The Roving Party was compared to the dystopia and bleakness of Cormac Macarthy’s work and the comparison also works here. To Name Those Lost also offers a beautiful portrait of fatherly love, a characteristic which provides some solace to the reader.
Wilson relishes the language of the time and the characters speak a delicious vernacular; words that are nearly lost and include mullock, jackeen and rum’un. There are also wonderful snap shots of the fashions of the time, both food and clothing – the salted ling and the ‘felt wide-awake’ worn by the dead-cart driver are two examples amongst a novel which, while obviously well researched, incorporates these facts seamlessly.
The robust language that comes from Mr Chung the hotelier’s mouth is particularly rich. Reminiscent of Mr Wu from the HBO series Deadwood, this character’s command of English insults is both disgusting and engaging.
The badlands of colonial Launceston, where life was hard and dark and difficult, where urchins roamed the streets and accepted food in exchange for sexual abuse, drank like the clappers and suffered other physical and emotional abuses at the hands of both strangers and family alike provide rich pickings for this tale – and Wilson doesn’t shy away from viscerally recounting extreme physical violence and the torture and killing of animals, adults and a baby all make an appearance.
Do not let the dark subject matter dissuade you from diving deep into this novel. At times the strings of the story are lost in detail and the pacing of the story is unequal, the story is finely told, the characters will stay with you and it is a fascinating and revealing history of a rough time in Tasmania’s past.
First published in The Mercury magazine TasWeekends, Saturday October 11
Here's an interview I did with Rohan about his first novel The Roving Party
To Name Those Lost
by Rohan Wilson
Allen and Unwin