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 realises 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.
Meg Keneally started her working life as a junior public affairs officer at the Australian Consulate-General in New York, before moving to Dublin to work as a sub-editor and freelance features writer.
On returning to Australia, she joined the Daily Telegraph as a general news reporter, covering everything from courts to crime to animals’ birthday parties at the zoo. She then joined Radio 2UE as a talkback radio producer.
In 1997 Meg co-founded a financial service public relations company, which she sold after having her first child.
For more than ten years, Margaret has worked in corporate affairs for listed financial services companies, and doubles as a part-time SCUBA diving instructor.
She lives in Sydney with her husband Craig and children Rory and Alex.
If you enjoyed this novel here are some links to interview and podcasts,
Sydney Mechanic's School of Arts - https://smsa.org.au/events/event/the-wreck-meg-keneally-in-conversation-with-leah-kaminsky/