The Sinkings by Amanda Curtin

The Sinkings opens with a grisly axe murder in the Western Australian town of Albany in 1882. The description of the murder takes little more than a page before the reader finds themselves in the present day, watching armchair researcher Willa Sampson ferret around in the State Records Office. Willa is looking for archival material relating to the murder. Willa is neither a descendant of the murdered man (a real historical personage), or a devotee of convict history. But there is a fillip of evidence in the records that intrigues her and gives her a sense of ‘ownership’ over the deceased’s story.

The murdered man was identified as ‘Little Jock’, a convict granted his ticket of leave who was beginning to make good in the colony as a sandalwood puller. His identification was a source of embarrassment and bewilderment to the coroner who initially examined the dismembered remains and concluded that the body was that of a woman. Although circumstantial evidence meant the remains were almost certainly those of Little Jock, the coroner remained troubled by the shape of the pelvis and the ‘inorganic substance’ he found there and seems never to have entirely rescinded his original position.

The ambiguity of Little Jock’s gender fascinates Willa and she takes up her new found bent for genealogy and historical research with gusto. As Willa begins to piece together the bare nuts and bolts of Little Jock’s life she ‘imagines’ the spaces in between the threadbare facts; giving Little Jock a living, breathing humanity that the extant records cannot. These ‘imaginings’ trace Little Jock from his childhood in Ireland, through the diaspora of the potato famine to Glasgow and finally through transportation to Western Australia for petty theft. One of the most remarkable achievements of this novel is how completely Curtin evokes the nineteenth century worlds of Ireland, Glasgow and the colonial outpost of Perth. These temporally and spatially different worlds feel authentic and textured.

As if that wasn’t complex enough, Curtin adds another two temporal dimensions to the novel: Willa’s present day life in Perth and her painful memories of birthing, raising and ultimately losing her daughter Imogen. Yet there is nothing jarring or clunky about these various stories and chronologies. Curtin deftly, but subtly, leads the reader to the connections between them to create one cogent meta-narrative arching above the other narratives.

Curtin’s subject matter – the nature of gender – is ambitious but she handles it sensitively. Like Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and David Ebershoff’s The Danish Girl, Curtin suggests that gender is an infinitely more mutable ‘fact’ than we often take it for. Curtin plays with several metaphors for gender identification in her novel. Just as Willa builds a complete history for Little Jock around the scant ‘facts’, there is a suggestion that as humans we are guilty of extrapolating from the ‘fact’ of genitalia to a complex edifice of personality, ability, sexuality etc. This edifice may bear no relation to the real person under the construction. It’s a curious element of human psychology that when faced with evidence contrary to our received beliefs, we so often conclude that it is the evidence itself that needs to be ‘fixed’ or is somehow ‘wrong’; not our received wisdom. Curtin’s book is about what happens when the ‘evidence’ stubbornly refuses to be righted. It is an elegant, compelling novel that is beautifully and precisely written (indeed, the precise and careful use of language is one of the pleasures to be savoured when reading the book).

Amanda was kind enough to answer some questions for Gliterati about her wonderful debut novel.

(1) What inspired you to write about the intersexed?

The archival records about the death of Little Jock suggested to me that he could have been intersexed, which raised so many questions I wanted to explore. The times and places I knew he lived in (the mid-nineteenth-century slums of Glasgow, small-town colonial Western Australia) and events I conjectured he may have lived through (Famine Ireland)—they were hard enough, but for someone on the margins of society, someone with something to hide?

And then research into intersex led me to our own times and the twentieth-century medical treatment of intersex infants, and I felt compelled to place these narratives side by side, weave them together.

(2) You identify as both a historian and a novelist. How do you keep the archival material in the service of the narrative rather than letting it overwhelm the story?

No, I’m definitely not a historian; I’m a fiction writer who loves history! In The Sinkings, the archival material takes a more prominent place than such material usually does in fiction, simply because Willa is in the process of researching Little Jock’s story—discovering the things she can, and can’t, find in the records. Even so, I had to be selective in what I used (of the records and the process), and how, with the result that Willa’s search for Little Jock is a good deal more orderly than mine was. The story and characters are the edifice; the mountain of research you accumulate only supplies some of the bricks.

Generally, I would say that that applies to any kind of detail in fiction: if your fiction requires the reader to understand the mechanism of a clock, or the way mathematicians approach an equation, or the precise layout of a house, you’ve got to find a way to feed those details organically into the narrative so the reader doesn’t disengage with the world on the page. It’s no different when you’re dealing with the past.

Often you use a kind of sleight of hand to achieve this—focusing the reader’s attention on one thing while conveying something else. For example, the narrative on page 78 of The Sinkings is all about Bridget, but while entering the consciousness of a little girl suspicious of her new ‘brother’, the reader becomes aware of what a ‘close-mouth’ is, about tenement hygiene, about sleeping arrangements in tenement houses, etc.

(3) In The Sinkings Little Jock and Imogen both journey from ‘female’ identified to ‘male’ identified. What decided you on this trajectory rather than the reverse?

I knew Little Jock lived in the world as a male for most of his life; it was just imaginative conjecture on my part that it may not always have been so, and that his appropriation of a male identity was opportunistic, a matter of survival.

With the fictional character Imogen, I knew from my research that the ‘default’ assignment for intersexed infants in the twentieth century was nearly always female, mostly because of the limitations of surgery at that time; I will never forget reading the words of the surgeon reported as saying, ‘It’s easier to dig a hole than build a pole’. Size mattered, too: a ‘micropenis’ was thought to be so hopelessly incommensurate with masculinity that the only course of action was to castrate the infants, genitally alter them and start them a lifetime of female hormones. It’s interesting that you see Imogen as journeying to male identification, but I don’t think I can discuss that without spoiling the story!

(4) What place do you think historical fiction has, or should have, in literature?

I think the past is fascinating in its own right—a rich seam for writers to mine, a compelling place for readers to journey to—but I’m also interested in what it brings to bear on the present. What can we learn from it? How does it inform what we do, or don’t do?

The term ‘historical fiction’ is broad and there are so many blends of narrative that tend to be lumped under it—from the wholly fictional story set in the past, to the re-creation of actual events, and everything in between. Equally, it ranges from the literary to the formulaic. I don’t see it as genre fiction at all.

(5) What advice do you have for aspiring Australian novelists?

Speaking as an editor: make your manuscript the best it can possibly be before you submit it to publishers or agents. Getting published is hard enough without putting any unnecessary roadblocks in the way. And read.

Speaking as a writer: keep learning your craft; if possible, get feedback on your work from a few trusted writer friends; persevere. And read.

Speaking from more than 25 years in publishing: listen to advice (including the above) but understand that there is no one ‘right’ path. And read.

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