‘The Burial’ by Courtney Collins

The-burial

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin UK; 310 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Courtney Collins’ The Burial is such an extraordinarily powerful book it’s hard to believe it was written by a first-time novelist. From the opening line — “If the dirt could speak, whose story would it tell?” — to the closing sentence, I was held in thrall by the exquisite prose, the luscious descriptions of the bush and a cast of curious well-drawn characters. But most of all I was captivated by the storytelling.

Female bushranger

The Burial tells the tale of Jessie Hickman, a female bushranger who rustles horses and duffs cattle, in the years after the Great War. The book opens in dramatic style: she’s just given birth to a premature baby while on the run and she’s buried it alive.

In a distinctive and unusual twist, it is the dead baby that narrates the story — a literary device that feels more natural and less showy or intrusive than you might initially expect. Indeed, the baby has so much sympathy for her mother, that you immediately warm to Jessie despite her track record as livestock thief, convict and murderer.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn about Jessie’s colourful past, which includes a stint as a circus rider and a two-year stretch in prison.  We also learn how she was apprenticed to Fitzgerald “Fitz” Henry, a fiery red-headed man living in a remote valley, to help him break in horses. She later marries Fitz, even though he treats her appallingly and is violent and abusive from the first day they met — any wonder she decides to do him in.

You might like to think of your own mother knitting blankets expanding outwards in all colours while you were in her womb. Or at worst vomiting into buckets. On the eve of my birth, my mother concertinaed my father while I lay inside her. Six foot, eight inches. She brought him down with the blunt side of an axe.

But this is not just Jessie’s story — the narrative also covers the two men who are on her trail: the opium-addicted Sergeant Barlow and the aboriginal tracker Jack Brown who secretly knows (and loves) Jessie but never lets on.

Adventure and romance with a Western feel

Part adventure tale, part romance, part Western (but without the gunslinging), The Burial has already earned Collins comparisons with Cormac McCarthy. I haven’t read enough of McCarthy’s work to tell whether the praise is justified, but I did find it reminiscent of Paulette Jiles’ civil war novel Enemy Women, which I loved when I read it more than a decade ago.

There’s a beautiful, haunting quality to the writing, which brings to life a diverse range of characters, as well as an Australian landscape of heavily wooded mountains and big open star-filled skies.

And Jessie, who is based on a real female bushranger, is wonderful company: feisty, unafraid, daring and brave.

The Burial is a dazzling book and one that has already garnered critical acclaim and prize nominations aplenty in Australia. It has been optioned for a feature film, which is hardly surprising — Collins writes with an eye for detail without ever losing sense of the bigger picture, which is to tell a dramatic story in a visual and exhilarating way.  It will be published in the UK by Allen and Unwin on May 2.

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20 thoughts on “‘The Burial’ by Courtney Collins

  1. I heard Courtney Collins read from this book at a Wheeler Centre event a few months ago and had to buy the book there and then. That hasn’t translated into actually reading the book yet, but I have high hopes for it when I do!
    I’m not entering the contest, just commenting generally!

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  2. So glad you felt the same Kimbofo … sometimes a book that has such strong, evocative writing can get mixed reactions but I loved it (like you). Great review! I hope whoever wins the giveaway loves it too. It should make a great movie if handled with subtlety.

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  3. Great review. I thought this book was amazing. I loved Jessie’s voice – it would be great to have a follow up novel.

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  4. This sounds amazing – I’m finding your Australian lit month reviews are making a dent in my book buying budget! 🙂 I’d love to be entered into the prize draw for a copy. I live in Yorkshire, which seems very far away from the heady publishing world of london but I wouldn’t change it. I was born here and have a fierce love for the place.

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  5. “The Burial” sounds wild! And wonderful – your review is great, and definitely makes me want to read it. If I’m not lucky in your prize draw, I’ll have to hit the shops on May 2nd, but it’s definitely on my TBR thanks to you!
    Originally I’m a Londoner, but now a ‘home counties girl’ in Bucks.

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  6. This sounds really intriguing and definitely one I’d like to read, if only to see how/if the dead baby narrator works (I’ll be honest, I’m sceptical – I assume you have to believe in reincarnation or something, else how can a baby be capable of narrating anything?).
    So many authors get the Cormac McCarthy comparison (usually inaccurately) that it often feels lazy. The oddest one I read lately was Abraham Verghese’s ‘Cutting for Stone’ which was described as “the sort of novel about Africa that Cormac McCarthy or Richard Russo might write”: hmm, even if you ignore the fact that neither of those authors seems likely to write a novel about Africa, the style was nothing like either of them, nor are McCarthy and Russo anything like each other. Anyway, I digress…
    I’d love to go in your prize draw. I live in Cheshire and always have done – technically it hasn’t been part of Cheshire since 1974 but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone round here who doesn’t still stubbornly write it as their address!

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  7. (live in a café that offers free wi-fi…)
    It seems really interesting but I am quite sure that I would prefer your review to the book itself if I was to read it 😉

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  8. I am feeling guilty about missing your Australia month this year — I simply had too many books lined up for April already — but do intend to be a “later” participant in the next few months. This is one that is very much on the agenda. And from your review, I suspect I will be finding some comparisons with Canadian frontier novels that I have read.

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  9. Kim, I’m so enjoying Australia month – it’s really highlighting some interesting and exciting reads. I live in Worcestershire and would love to be transported to the Australian outback via this book draw (particularly given the current weather!)

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  10. I hope you get to read it soon, Marg. It’s so very good… I found it gripping from start to finish. (Am trying not to be envious about you hearing Courtney Collins do a reading!)

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  11. This is so ripe for movie adaptation, isn’t it? I think that’s because it’s so visual and the landscape forms such an important setting. It did remind me of The Man from Snowy River in places… probably all that mention of mountains and brumbies!

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  12. Please don’t feel guilty, Kevin. I find it so difficult to maintain my own blog and respond to comments here, let alone go visit other blogs and take part in other online “events”. And yes, this novel is very much in the “frontier” vain and I think you will find a lot in it to like.

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  13. I haven’t read much Westerns but this looks
    like a great read. Kim have you read The Brothers Sisters by Patrick de Witt? If not I would recommend this book.

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  14. Yes, have read The Brothers Sisters when it was shortlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize. Theres a review on this blog. I remember quite liking it, but thinking the ending a bit odd.

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