This first novel by Douglas Coop is a Dickensian story that trumps Dickens in one respect: it’s based on the true saga of Coop’s great-grandparents. With assiduous research, Coop has reconstructed the probable circumstances in which his ancestor, 17-year—old George White, was wrongfully arrested for theft in England, in 1834, and sentenced to deportation for seven years “in parts beyond the seas.”
George is first imprisoned in England. No aspect of the country’s grisly justice system is neglected in Coop’s richly detailed narrative that follows George to Bedford Gaol; Newgate Prison, with its “overpowering stench,” and the grueling labor on a prison hulk at Woolwich (shades of Dickens’ Magwitch). Leaving nothing to the reader’s imagination, Coop describes the unremitting cruelty, depravity, and miserable conditions of penal servitude, in which prisoners were routinely flogged and then required to attend church services by their sanctimonious captors. Such details as cockroaches that feast on prisoners’ toenails during the night create vivid images.
Once George is en route to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), he undergoes nearly every possible calamity, including a deadly shipboard fire, a dysentery epidemic, and a shipwreck in which shackled prisoners drown in their bunks.
Coop recounts each incident with admirable fidelity to historical detail, but his matter-of-fact narration lacks the power that might have created swash-buckling drama. When George, serving his time in Hobart, meets Elizabeth Allen, an Englishwoman convicted of petty theft, Coop’s account of their star-crossed courtship is rendered in sentimental, even mawkish terms. (“She saw his face illuminated with a smile of such radiance it sent tingles of emotion deep into her very being.”)
While this is not top-notch literary fiction, Coop’s narrative maintains a brisk pace, and the historical detail is always absorbing. Readers can learn a great deal about 19th century England’s rigid class structure, nefarious penal system and inhuman transport policy. It should sell well in the Antipodes.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.