Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Blue-Eyed Aborigine by Rosemary Hayes

August 2010, Francis Lincoln
247 pages, Paperback

Review copy
Young Adult/Childrens (publisher suggests 12 - 15)
Occasional swearing, frequent murder although not graphic, adult themes, confronting abuse of women

Summary from Frances Lincoln:
It is 1629, and there is mutiny in the air aboard the Dutch ship Batavia as she plies her way towards Java with her precious cargo. Jan, a cabin boy, and Wouter, a young soldier, find themselves caught up in the tragic wrecking and bloody revolt that follow. But worse is to come…

Based on the diaries of the ship's Commander, Rosemary Hayes recaptures some of sea history's most dramatic moments, linking the fates of of Jan and Wouter with discoveries that intrigue Australians to this day.

Amy's thoughts:
This is one of those stories that grows on you after you close the covers, that plays in your thoughts and lingers. Based on an historical event in 1629 - the shipwreck of the Dutch vessel the Batavia - The Blue-Eyed Aborigine is a beautiful blend of fact and fiction.

The story is told in two parts, a first section in third person with a 'classical' children's story style, and a second section in first person, alternating between the points of view of the two men involved. Something I found somewhat paradoxical initially was that the first section, written in the more distant third person, was much more confronting and graphic than the second, gentler, first-person section. However, by the end of the story I was convinced by this narrative technique, and when I had the opportunity to discuss the book with the author last Thursday, she confirmed the motivations for using this technique - check out the interview for her response.

The Blue-Eyed Aborigine is, fundamentally, the story of Jan, a Dutch cabin boy on the ship Batavia that is doomed to shipwreck and mutiny. Jan is eighteen at this time, but his simple innocence and trusting nature are exploited by the mutineers, and he becomes a co-conspirator, participating in the rape of the female passengers after the shipwreck - although he cannot bring himself to murder.

When those shipwrecked are at last rescued by their commander, who rowed the long boat to Jakarta (some 2000 kilometres), the mutineers are condemned to hang. And yet, for one reason or another, Jan and another co-conspirator, Wouter, are told they will not hang, and are instead marooned on the 'Great South Land' - Australia. This much of the story is factual, based on diaries kept by the Commander - and this much is recounted in the first half of the story.

It's in the second half of the story that the author has allowed her imagination to reign, and this has resulted in beautifully drawn interactions between Jan and the Aborigines, and a much more distinct sense of who Jan is as a person. To write from historical fact is naturally limiting, but Rosemary acquits herself well in interpreting and extrapolating and creating a real, sympathetic narrator. Her knowledge of the Aboriginal people's customs is obvious, and her interpretation real, and poignant.

Although the confronting scenes early on in the book and the distant third narration were initially unsettling, the warmth of the second section and the development of Jan as a character ensure that this is a book I'll read again.

Final conclusion:
A confronting look at a significant event in history, with deft interpretation and excellent character development - a great read.

Find out more about the author and her books at


Ladybug said...

This sounds like a great story, and maybe one I could learn something from as I know very little about the event. Great review :)

Amy Laurens said...

I also knew very little about it when I read it, and it's very informative - AND a good read, although the second half is more engaging than the first. :)

Nayuleska said...

I like it when books have a good balance of information and intrigue.