Culture Street

Books

The Burial by Courtney Collins

On September 10, 2012

By Sophia Whitfield

Courtney Collins was shortlisted for the 2009 Australian Vogel Literary Award for The Burial. Continuing to enjoy success, The Burial has been shortlisted for the 2011 Scribe Fiction Award and has been optioned for a feature film by Pure Pictures.

Inspired by the life and times of Australia’s last female bushranger, Jessie Hickman, this brooding debut novel, set in the 1920s, draws on the dark rugged landscape of the Hunter Valley where Jessie famously fled pursued by police.

The beautiful evocative prose sets the scene.

“The Earth, as I can feel it, is pressed together at points and ruptures in parts. And so events seem to fold into each other, like burial and birth. It’s not like the smooth undulating beauty of a ribbon streaming out. No. The earth buckles with the stories it holds of all those who have cried and all those who have croaked.”

After serving a two year prison sentence for horse rustling Jessie is apprenticed to the brutish Fitzgerald Henry as part of her release conditions. He blackmails her into horse rustling for him. Jessie, an accomplished rider, hones her skills stealing horses and cattle for Fitz.  She suffers terrible abuse at the hands of Fitz, but sees no escape on the horizon.

After Fitz is injured in an accident he hires stockman Jack Brown to assist him. Both Jack and Jessie are stifled by the oppressively demanding Fitz. Instantly attracted to one another, Jessie knows nothing good will come of it as they risk the wrath of Fitz. Soon Jack leaves Jessie behind.

By the age of twenty six Jessie Hickman has been a circus rider, a horse and cattle rustler and a convict.

One fateful night Jessie finally flees her home with only her horse for company. She is at breaking point; she has lost everything, but is determined to survive her treacherous surroundings and her pursuers. Jessie rides into the mountains, a wild brave young woman on a quest for freedom.

“The rain was upon us. We could hardly see where we were going. We rode anyway.”

With a price on her head Jessie continues her quest meeting up with other lost souls. Abandoned children populate this novel. They are the downtrodden seeking their own salvation through flight, drugs or camaraderie.

Collins’s rich prose lifts the dark melancholic nature of the story. She is adept at painting the rugged Australian landscape as an image of great beauty.

“North and West the inland climate gave rise to black and white cypress and tumbledown gums of ironbark. Jessie looked down from the high ridge. Around her were deep cliff-lined gorges, giant ramparts and then more canyons, more rock. There was wilderness as far as she could see. It did not end.”

The fiercely independent Jessie Hickman is escaping her terrible past, her misdeeds loom large, but the reader will be barracking for her all the way.

The Burial is a richly atmospheric novel that harkens after the colonial past. It has award winner stamped all over it. The Burial is a beautifully written book set to the backdrop of the haunting Australian landscape.

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