I really enjoyed this author’s first novel, Backwaters, a few years ago so snapped this second novel up when it was released in June. Warning, only the most liberal of definitions would include this as crime fiction.
In 1855 the goldfields at Mosquito Creek near Bendigo in Victoria have seen their best days. Much of the easily extractable gold has been taken and many of the diggers have moved on. As this book opens it is teeming with rain and the river has burst its banks, causing a small group of diggers to be cut off from the main field. Amongst the general unrest over the fact that little work can be done due to the weather there is a feeling that ‘something’ must be done to rescue those cut off by the rising flood waters, there appears to be an outbreak of disease to contend with and it seems that one of the diggers has gone missing.
Early white settlement in Australia often seemed to me to be the stories of people who didn’t want to be here. This includes both the convicts who were transported here from England from 1788 onwards and many of the officials charged with maintaining order in the colonies whose postings were a form of punishment in themselves. How they deal with their circumstances, whether they treat it as an opportunity or an ordeal is, often, at the heart of things. The two central characters in Mosquito Creek seem to fit this category though they do approach it differently.
Niall Kennedy, now a sergeant in the goldfields police, was transported as a convict and over the course of the novel we learn about his background, why he was transported to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), how he has arrived at this point in his life and what he would like to do in the future. Early on in the novel when he is considering some of the other troopers on the goldfields he thinks
Joining the goldfields police would be just another job for them, something he’d thought himself at the start: a green winter uniform, a wage and a new carbine in your hands. A chance to swagger a bit and pay some bastard back for all you’d suffered yourself. There were a lot like that – most were, in fact. But he saw it differently now. It was a wage for him, but it was something else too: a chance to slip into some new kind of skin, a chance to make up for a past that had grown over like brambles and suffocated his life.
The other significant person in the novel is Commissioner Charles Stanfield who was forced into accepting his posting to the colonies by his father. Again as the novel unfolds we learn about the events which led to his ostracism and his compulsion to achieve some level of importance or notoriety that would enable him to return to England, which is his sole goal in life. In one of the letters to his family that he composes (either literally or in his head) he provides this insight into both his own character and the nature of the settlement he has been sent to
You must not believe the lies that are spread from these parts because this is not a real place. When the sources of gold are exhausted a population disappears with it. A town of ten thousand people can be reduced to little more than a hundred overnight, more lying buried in the cemetery than remaining near it. Nor are the inhabitants of a goldfield people as you or I would know them. Everything here is built on rumour and gossip, every conversation designed only to advance the interests of the speaker. When a person occupies a position such as I occupy here there are many enemies and very few friends. Everything I do is subject to scrutiny.
Of course the setting itself is also a major player in a novel like this. Engwerda does a fantastic job of depicting a time and place where the natural elements play a crucial role in day-to-day life. We see, for example, snippets of life for the men who have been cut-off by the flood and their increasing desperation at being cold, starving and having no sense of when or if there might be respite is wholly believable. Even the fact that there is only one female character who actually opens her mouth in the entire book helps give the setting a sense of realism.
The story didn’t capture my interest as much as the two men at the centre of the novel. Though at some points it was quite gripping, overall it didn’t feel particularly tense and wasn’t one of those books I felt I had to get back to as soon as I’d put it down (though I was always happy to pick it up again). I found one of the story threads in particular, involving Charles Stanfield’s efforts to retrieve a valued family heirloom, a little confusing and too reliant on innuendo over concrete plot advancement but this is a minor quibble really.
I have to admit that the early colonial history of my country is not my favourite area of history to read about (due to a combination of bad history teaching and a stint working as an archivist where all any researcher ever wanted to know about was their family’s convict past) but I found Mosquito Creek’s focus on two very interesting characters and the way they dealt with the tribulations life handed them to be very engaging. I would certainly recommend it to anyone who is interested in getting a sense of this period of Australian history from an unusual perspective.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 4/5
Publisher Penguin 
Length 337 pages
Format Trade Paperback
Source I bought it