"Fled", Meg Keneally's debut solo novel was a buddy read with Nat as well, and we both loved it. This is her latest novel and is similar in many ways.
”It is why I will go with the men when they rise. Women hunger, and women die, so women must also fight.”
Manchester, August 1819
The thrum of machines fills the air. Entire generations, from young children to adults, work in the cotton mills, barely making enough to make ends meet. Hunger and poverty are rife. Families live in squalor in one room huts.
The McCaffreys were weavers of fine articles of cloth, proud of their workmanship. But the industrial revolution and introduction of behemoth machines has meant they have lost their livelihood. And had to join the beast of mill life. Where neither adult nor child is free from a brutal beating at the hands of their “master”.
The disparity between the classes is seen from the first pages. The appalling work and living conditions, where continual hunger is the norm. Where children are stunted and weak, instead of being able to blossom and grow. Workers - both men and women - gather together to attend a speech at a public rally, in nearby fields. A renowned orator is there to discuss change, in an attempt to bring the poor working conditions to the attention of the government. To open their eyes to the realities of life for the mill workers. The penury. But the peaceful protest soon turns ugly….Sarah McCaffrey and her brother Sam lose both parents in the confusion of the bloody melee that follows.
A mysterious stranger who was watching the protest from afar, helps them see their parents decently buried. As with all gift horses, this act comes with a proposal that they leave their home to move to the capital. To further the cause of the rebellion, against the masters in Westminster. With nothing to hold them back any longer in Manchester, Sarah and Sam make the move to London. But at what cost?
Sydney, New South Wales, August 1820
Landing on the shores of a new colony on the other side of the world, part two begins with Sarah as the sole survivor of a shipwreck. The Serpent has crashed on the rocks of the coast of New South Wales.
And so begins a new life for her. Renaming herself as Sarah Marin, she keeps her true identity quiet, until she can work out who can be trusted. Being the only person left from the fatal journey, there is a lot of curiosity and interest as to who she might be.
In Sarah McCaffrey/Marin, we have a survivor, a young lass, tested by the fates, who emerges as a strong woman. She is brave, without realising it. Without asking to be. Sarah is simply true to herself and her beliefs. This is a forte of Meg Keneally’s, to bring to the reader strong female protagonists, when the society around them is definitely patriarchal, and dismissive of women having intelligent thoughts or any sort of rights. This new colony is not only harsh, it truly is a man’s world. But with a possibility for people to re-invent themselves, and shake off their pasts which have brought them here.
”You have survived worse, and you will survive this. You must.”
I enjoyed reading the descriptions of the sights and sounds of a new city being built from scratch. From the convicts in chain gangs, to the merchants, labourers, serving girls, and all those in between. All living in a bright, harsh environment. Unlike any they could have imagined.
The title The Wreck is a great metaphor; not only for the ship which came to an unfortunate end as it landed on the sharp rocks of the New South Wales shoreline, but also for the lives that were splintered and had to begin again in a hot, unknown land. Whether as free settlers or in chains. That being a wreck either in body or spirit, can still allow for renewal, and hope.
”I have never taken what isn’t mine. I simply tried to take what is.”
This is Meg Keneally’s second solo book. Collin and I both read her first novel Fled and loved it. For me, this one didn’t have quite the same intensity. While it continues in the same theme of solid writing that brings to life the sights and scenes of colonial life of the early settlers and convicts, I was sometimes “lost”. I wondered if I’d somehow skipped reading a paragraph or two, or maybe even a page. I’d have to pause and backtrack to see what I’d missed.
Though this could simply be that I’ve just had too much on my mind lately. I cannot be overly critical if there were a few hazy moments, as they well could have been all mine, and not the books. We had a lot of stops and starts with reading this, purely due to me. So I guess some of this vibe has carried over to finally reading the book in its entirety.
Having said this, it’s a superb effort. It interested me to read from the Author’s Notesthat while the events and characters in this story were fictitious, they were loosely based around events that occured and people that existed. It’s a nice touch. 3.5 ⭐ full stars.
It is 1819, Manchester, and the steam-powered behemoth that is the industrial revolution has stolen many of the city’s inhabitant’s jobs. Jobs that used to require a skilled tradesman are now performed by unskilled factory workers with skills learned in days rather than years.
This revolution gives rise to another revolution, one more sinister and dire, well depending on whether you come from the class of rich aristocrats and politicians, or the poor, destitute, poverty ridden class who are dying in the streets from hunger.
Combine this with the people containing virtually no rights and you have the demonstration that took place in St Peter’s Field. 60000 people had gathered to listen to a speech to be given by Harold Hartford. It was a peaceful gathering with Harold telling everyone not to bring weapons. The working class were there to demand their right to vote, to have a say, a voice. A peaceful way to improve their lives and situation.
On their way to Manchester Square, Sarah and her mother pass a sign which clearly states that the public meeting addressed by Harold Hartford will be an illegal meeting, however, Emily, Sarah’s mother, assures Sarah they will be fine, and they march on.
Sarah is a member of the Female Reform Society. Unable to afford a white dress like the women she is marching arm in arm with, Sarah wears brown. And yet she is no lesser woman than any marching that day. In fact, Sarah has been gifted the honour of being the standard bearer for this march.
Sarah realizes that trouble is brewing when the Yeomen arrive on horses, quickly followed by the Hussars. Then her fears are confirmed when she notices constables approaching as well.
The despicable violence and force used by the King’s men and the ensuing loss of life and injury became know as the Peterloo Massacre. And Sarah and her brother Sam witness the murder of their mother and father.
It is these murders which galvanize the siblings, forge them into something they were not born to be. They become members of a rebellion plotting to assassinate a group of Cabinet members. However, the plot is poorly planned and doomed to fail before it has even started. Sarah is forced to flee to New South Wales hiding on a ship, her brother captured and hung.
However, before they reach their destination, we discover why the book is entitled “The Wreck”. The nefarious captain of the ship, Watkins, has been cannibalizing and selling parts of the ship for his own profit, and replacing them with old, inferior parts. One of these parts just so happens to be an integral part of the rudder. When this part fails it leads to the ship being dashed upon rocks and wrecked in Sydney Harbor.
Sarah awakens in a hospital in Sydney to find that she is the only survivor of the wreck. This poses a problem for Sarah as, seeing she is the only survivor of the wreck, she is deemed a bit of a celebrity, making it more difficult to hide from the authorities who will be on her trail.
In Sydney Sarah falls under the aegis of Mrs Thistle. Mrs Thistle arrived as a convict but inherited her husband’s estate when he died, this estate instantly making her one of the wealthiest women in the colony. When Sarah finds out that the authorities are indeed still looking for her, she realizes that she must tell Mrs Thistle about her past. This leads to a wonderful, if unexpected ending.
Meg Keneally once again paints a beautiful picture of Australia and Sydney in the early 19th century. The same flair and style that she used in her debut novel “Fled” is again present in this second novel. Sentences such as,
“Mrs Addison, her hair untied and the colour of a musket barrel, violently pulled open the door as though she was trying to punish it for the crime of being knocked on.”
“Mornings usually came far too quickly, before she was ready to meet them; this one was dragging, as though it had gathered up her wishes for more time and was granting them all at once.”
I love Keneally’s prose.
Again, as with her debut, Keneally has made the protagonist a strong, headstrong young woman, who is also fragile and scared. Sarah endures much throughout this novel. Then there is Mrs Thistle, the matriarch who gives the impression that she is a dominating woman, with no heart, tough enough to not only survive, but prosper, in a man’s world. However, this is just a façade she has built to hide her true nature. She is kind and caring, letting the poor and destitute reside in her properties paying no rent, taking women under her wing. I would have loved to have seen more of the captain of the “Serpent”, Captain Watkins. A character with so much potential. His early removal, a lost opportunity I feel.
I found this novel to be as good as “Fled” but more inconsistent. It starts strongly, loses its way a little in the middle, but then finishes with an ending that just ties the entire narrative together brilliantly. 4 Stars.
So the combined scores come to 7.5. This is our lowest rated book yet, but do not let that put you off, it is a great read, especially it you enjoyed "Fled" or the genre.
Here are some links to interviews and podcasts -
Sydney Mechanic's School of Arts - https://smsa.org.au/events/event/the-wreck-meg-keneally-in-conversation-with-leah-kaminsky/