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Out Of Their Feeling

Mary O’Donnell
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…

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