Recently all my teenage dreams came true when I was able to meet and listen to John Marsden speak at Adelaide Writers Week. I grew up reading his young adult work, most notably the Tomorrow series. He is an exemplary example of young Australian writing that is accessible, relatable and endearing. His most recent novel is his first foray into adult novel writing with South of Darkness. South of Darkness is the story of Barnaby Fletch, a thirteen-year-old orphan living on the tough street of London in the late 1700s. After a serious mis-step he decides that the best way forward is to start a new life on a new continent and so his commits a crime intent on being shipped out to Botany Bay. The novel follows his life in London all the way to the convict colony of Australia.
This was an interesting read, one that I finished in a day. It was an enjoyable read and I would recommend it, particularly if you have an interesting in early colonial life in Australia. Marsden did discuss his pains to research and write this in a way that it is quite representative of the era. I have to say the element missing for me was the emotional connection. This I think is due to the fact that it is a written account similar to a diary of the time, that was not particularly emotive, more fact-telling than anything. This is not a real criticism – Marsden has clearly captured the nature of his chosen format and it reads like any other historical account.
One aspect that Marsden does really well is not shy away from any harsh realities of what life really was like. The travel by boat was the most fascinating part of the novel for me, an aspect that could seemingly be overlooked but was a crucial part of the story. Marsden did not shy away from any uncomfortable truths in this part of the journey and details just how alluring young Barnaby was to many of the other more serious and depraved criminals on the boat. Not the nicest of aspects but a realistic one.
There were a few plot twists that were thrown in towards the end. They were perhaps a tad unrealistic, however, did tie the story together perfectly. Overall, this was a very enjoyable and easy book to read with, dare I say, an opening for a sequel? If that is so I would not hesitate to pick it up. Do read this is if you have an interest in what life was like back in Australia in the very early days or if you want to know what crime may have sent a child half-way across the world. I give South of Darkness three koalas, for Barnaby an alien animal in an alien country.