Not the Same Sky, by Evelyn Conlon, Wakefield Press, 272 pp, £12.75, ISBN: 978-1743052426
In Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks, apart from the glass wall of the Famine monument on which a visitor may read the sand-blasted names of the young women transported to Australia from 1848, there is another element ‑ a soundscape created by Paul Carter and located within the courtyard’s solitary Lilli Pilli tree. Carter noted that the soundscape was called “Out of their feeling”, indicating that as the list of the dead increased, the living were “out of their feeling”. This meant that at a certain point the suffering had gone beyond speech.
What lingers after reading Evelyn Conlon’s seventh work of fiction, Not the Same Sky, is the sense of a group of women who arrived in Australia already in trauma and beyond speech from the experience of the Famine and its losses. That they are all “out of their feeling”, that they all have to challenge elements within themselves in order to dismantle memory, indeed to wilfully forget, forms a thematic heart to this novel.
The narrative is book-ended by the contemporary account of Joy Kennedy, a stonemason invited to Sydney to consider what her input might be for the creation of the proposed Famine monument. Formerly used to house convicts, between 1848 and 1872 it became the initial resting place for some thousands of immigrant girls and women who had been transported from Ireland, via Plymouth, and onwards to a new life, for the purpose of working for, and populating, the colony. Joy’s present-day journey contrasts sharply ‑ and sometimes amusingly ‑ with the slow sea voyage taken in the mid-nineteenth century.
The four Irish girls who undertake the journey under the civilised supervision of Charles Strutt confound stereotypical expectations of what such young women might have been like. They are entirely convincing, human characters, and witness to the fact that youth and hope sometimes triumph over such horrors as famine. Julia, Honora, Bridget and Anne are respectively wild (and obstreperous), intelligent, nervous and downright cheerful.
Once they board the Thomas Arbuthnot in October 1849, the girls discover the surprisingly pedagogic and paternalistic methods of Strutt, the ship’s surgeon-superintendent, who is determined to get his two hundred passengers to Sydney in good health. Even if it is in his own interests to do so, he has an enlightened nature, and arranges activities, exercise programmes, and classes. His passengers are to have rest and to be fed well, and it is a fact of historical record that at least one such journey to the antipodes occurred. There were no miserable outcomes, no deaths, and the girls thrived.
Interesting also, is the role of music throughout the story, with the song and movement of seabirds fascinating and consoling the ever-anxious Bridget as the ship ploughs across the equator. Later, she encounters and is soothed by the vividly plumaged species in the bewildering new land of Australia. Along with birdsong, there is, of course, their own Irish music on board, and the effects of this on the girls, homesickness, loss, feelings of having been cut loose from every stabilising force in their lives, are marked throughout. It is how each girl deals with such desolation that adds depth and tone to the work.
So how do they adapt to this geographical and psychological upheaval? Not alone the effects of the Famine, of being orphaned, but of suddenly being thrust into a terra incognita to be hired out as maids, housekeepers, and farm hands? In Conlon’s hands, what happens after disembarkation is where this imaginative story builds to a most interesting nexus.
There are diaries and internal monologues that record their experience. Yes, some were literate. We learn what they have witnessed, what cruelties and arbitrary kindnesses they have lived through. Julia, the most fiery of the four, would turn down nothing in the way of work, even ‑ it is hinted ‑ the oldest profession, if pushed to it, which she isn’t. There are marriages and children. Often, these women initially married older men, who died, but then married again and had different batches of children, the result fulfilling official vision: lots of children to build up the British colony, young, eager energy to work the terrain and make it viable. It is through these vividly portrayed characters that we come to know how people negotiate the world after something terrible has occurred; we learn also how some thrive while others simply fade, the burden of harsh change and adaptation, the burden of having to speak English and forget an Irish past too much to bear.
Conlon’s characteristic ironic tone underscores the story, adding a wry and intelligent voice. Above all, she questions memory and she questions forgetting. By 1860, it is inferred in the narrative that all the women who travelled south on the Thomas Arbuthnot are settled and dispersed throughout the colony, in Yass, Gundagai, Sydney and Brisbane, Melbourne, Ballarat, Castlemaine and Adelaide. We observe as they awaken to their day and do the ordinary things. But many, as Honora Raftery’s posthumously discovered diary reveals, have deliberately “forgotten” their first experience of life in Ireland, because in order to move forward and survive, the obliteration, or part-obliteration of images of the past has been a necessary act of healing: “You don’t want to know about the intricacies of my hunger, the shame it brought on me, or if you do, I cannot understand why, because I don’t need to know it anymore. I have forgotten about the workhouse … I never want to remember it.” And one wonders, having read this luminous, important novel of restitution, about the selectivity of both remembering and forgetting, and what this means for both Ireland and Australia today.
This is a mature work of sparkling intelligence and insight. It was launched in Australia’s national parliament last year and is held in some regard within a culture dominated by the Irish genetic marker. It should be on any book prize shortlist in the coming year; indeed to overlook it would be an act of cultural madness.
Mary O’Donnell is a novellist and poet