The Sinkings belongs in the historical fiction basket, one of my favourite sorts of stories in which “it could have been like this” – where bare facts, so far as they are known, are imbued with the rich texture of living characters making their way through the hard stuff of real life, far more lively than ’facts’ can ever be.
This particular piece of historical fiction makes for a masterful, wonderful novel. Amanda Curtin depicts the grimmest of circumstances, but through all the grimy and bruised laminate of the hard lives of Little Jock in The Sinkings or Fish Meggie in Elemental, she somehow manages to let the light through so that what might be bleak is luminous with wisdom and richness and a sort of grounded joy. Her writing is gorgeous, enchanting, transporting, seductive; I found it difficult to put this book down (so I didn’t).
In The Sinkings two stories from different times interweave and mirror each other – that of Little Jock, an Irish intersex person (we still do not have an acceptable non-gendered pronoun), a lost child surviving the Irish famine, scratching along in the slums of Glasgow until one prison sentence too many sees him sent to the West Australian colony in the late 1800’s where his life comes to baffling and brutal end at The Sinkings; and the story of Willa in the present time, researching Little Jock for complicated reasons of her own. Willa is a guilt-wracked and grieving mother who’s own child is lost to her because of impossible choices made early on, with terrible ramifications.
The two worlds are mirrored in a beautifully rendered examination of identity, family, choice, belonging (and not), that which we inherit and what we make of the life we land in. Little Jock and Willa both come to understand something of the complexities of becoming who we are – each ends up with a name chosen to be different to that they were given, each has to reckon with the lot of the outsider and find their ‘voice’, their way of being, a liveable life, some sort of love. Willa’s introspective examination of her own motives in dealing with her child help us understand the mystery of Jock’s savage death, or how it might have happened and within that, how decisions do and do not get made and the long runnels of consequence that shape life thereafter. Both Willa and Jock are ordinary, and in their ways, heroic. Each comes a long way, literally and metaphorically, out of the margins of life to find something worth having – until it is taken from them and something else is found.
This is an intelligent, immensely satisfying book of wide and deep sweep; if you hadn’t picked it up yet, I loved it – 5 stars! Now, I’m going to further immerse myself in this wonderful author’s work by reading Inherited!