by Greta van der Rol
338 pages, DIIARTs (Dragon International Independent Arts)
Review by S.F. Winser
(In what may turn out to be the longest, strangest Booksquawk declaration ever, I must say that this copy was NOT provided to me as a free review copy. It was donated to my local library, and I borrowed it, fair and square. However, my local library is also my place of work and the donation was made because I made van der Rol aware of the fact that we were having some issues with ordering books by independent authors. So I benefited, but in very roundabout, and minor way.)
Australia is a young country historically, but ancient prehistorically. We've got some interesting history, but most of the written down variety is recent. The Batavia incident, the basis of 'Die a Dry Death', is one of our earliest written-down bits. And it's a nasty, horrible written-down bit that's absolutely fascinating on many levels.
I don't think spoilers are particularly relevant for historical-fiction but I'll make this as spoiler free as possible: Batavia is a port in what is now Indonesia. At one time it was a major holding and trading port for the Dutch East India Company. The company shipped spices and treasures from there to Europe. From Europe they sent the money and trade-goods to exchange for these treasures.
It was an important port. They named a ship after it.
The “Batavia”, the ship, on one such trip from Europe to its name-sake port, ran aground on the reef of an uncharted island chain just off the barren West-Australian coast – back before Australia was even Australia and was still known as the Great Unknown Southland (Terra Nullus Australis). The ship “Batavia” broke up, killing many. The captain and a small crew left the survivors on the freshwater-less island chain to sail a tiny boat across the sea to Batavia, the port. They hoped to, perhaps, make it alive. They hoped that if they managed it they might bring rescue to any who hadn't died of thirst and hunger while they were gone.
And this journey in a tight-packed boat across the open ocean, with a small baby as one of the crewmates, would be worthy of a book in itself.
But it's what happens on the island while this heroic journey is underway that makes this a terrible, fascinating story that can't be ignored. The survivors, which include women and children, go through an ordeal that is part war, part horror movie. They end up under the control of a man who can only be labelled insane. And so begins the reign of terror and death.
van der Rol starts and ends 'Die a Dry Death' in a classical sailor's-tale structure. We meet a traveller. The traveller walks into a bar. An old salt tells him the tale. At the end, the sailor wraps it all up with a neat little sting. This was reasonably well-handled, thematically and narratively relevant and still kinda annoyed me. There's nothing wrong with it, in an historical novel based on one of the great shipwreck stories it's completely acceptable and possibly required to use this old-fashioned shipwreck story structure. The traveller ends up a little two-dimensional, but he's only in two chapters in the entire book, so who cares? The main problem I had was that since it's an historical tale, I personally found it to require me to first put my mind into one element of the story and get used to the world, but then have to do it all over again once the story-proper started. More a personal taste issue than a problem. I also felt that van der Rol, once we got onto the ship, could have spent a little more time in establishing and cementing character before the shipwreck but, for reasons I'll explain later, I found this completely forgivable. Especially since (a): we just had that prologue with the traveller, the reader is desperate to get the story started and (b): The story is cool, why the hell wouldn't you rush to get to it?
But the main reason is van der Rol's approach to character. It must be tempting as hell to put words in the mouths and heads of actual historical people. To change history to make it work better. Van der Rol (for the most part) lets the actions speak for themselves. Not that she doesn't get into her character's heads, or spin her own theories into the motivations – I'm not saying that at all. She does both - but that, since the actions here are almost impossible for a modern reader to accept, clean motives and 'fully rounded characters' and other such things that we expect from fiction aren't here. Truth is stranger and also harder to pin down than fiction. What we get instead are complex characters, who don't always think modern thoughts. Sometimes we want the women to be spunky and willing to take up arms. Instead sometimes they are morally conflicted and forced against their will to do things they don't like. They don't even realise that fighting-back is possible. And whinging about it, no matter how feminist one would like to be, won't work because we know full well that this is what actually happened. You cannot rewrite history to make all women strong freedom fighters who would rather die, honour intact, than give in to the demands of madmen. And it's not an impossible thought that a woman who hasn't seen her husband for a very long time might find some physical pleasure in the loss of virtue while hating the man who takes it. It's not a popular approach to write about such things, or suggest such possibilities, but this doesn't make them untrue.
As such, with an exception or two, we don't actually have any heroes. We have main characters who are often admirable while being simultaneously pitiable or broken. We have a captain who is a drunk, a lecher, caught up in a wreck that could have happened to anyone and responds in a manner that took great courage and skill and saved many lives. We have a well-bred woman who is used and abused by a killer, but maintains a proper centre and even seems to gain something from her situation that doesn't diminish her inner strength - while the reader and she herself deplore her own pleasure in being used by a murderer. We have a man who takes a group of surely doomed survivors and keeps many of them alive while driven by God to weld them into an effective band. Who writes sonnets of great beauty and is also a murderer who never kills a soul, a liar who sets great store by legalities and an educated man who wants to be a pirate. And more: the upstanding but annoying merchant-commander, the bitchy and slutty yet somehow innocent ex-maid. No one here is an 'easy' character.
It's tempting to call them a weird bunch, but what they are is human. One of them might be an insane human, but none of them are simple. There is some work demanded of the reader of a type that's an unexpected delight in a modern novel where the work is usually in the direction of understanding the Art of the novelist, his or her Poetic Vision or Intention or the deeper meaning of their Character Arc. The work in this book is more van der Rol asking the reader to look at these characters with her and try to understand how and why these things could and did happen. And that's exactly the right direction in which to take a novel about these circumstances. The question of the Batavia incident is always 'Why did they do these things?' (That is when it's not 'What the HELL did they just do!?') It must have been tempting to weave a more 'clean' narrative, with simple dramatic motives, but that would have been van der Rol telling us what happened, imposing themes that might have been unwelcome or forced, not us working at the problem of the evils at the centre of the book for ourselves.
There was one other aspect that really worked for me. I grew up with several uncles and aunties of the family-friend variety. The kind of people who were close friends of parents, not actual relatives, but still got called aunty and uncle. One set of these faux-rellies were lovely people and Dutch to their bones. This book has the same distinct 'Dutchness' that I came to associate with them. It helps that, although van der Rol has lived in Australia for quite some time, she was born in Holland to Dutch parentage. I mean, it's not like that last name is a difficult hint that, culturally, van der Rol might have some qualifications to write this book.
'Die a Dry Death' is sometimes challenging, sometimes confronting and yet not actually a hard read. It's a very accessible novel about a very standard shipwreck full of otherwise average people that, because of one man, became part one of the most horrific situations ever to happen in Australia.