The cover of Christopher Koch’s new novel, Lost Voices, features a painting, Bushrangers, Victoria, Australian, 1852 by William Strutt.
It‘s a rather romantic view of bush ranging, bright colours with the thieves’ victims sitting patiently in a row, a bit tired, somewhat annoyed, but nevertheless, seemingly safe, while their goods are rifled by the men with guns. It’s a romantic view of bush ranging, nothing to do with the fear that being held up generated in the victims, or the brutality of the life on the run.
Lost Voices is in part about bush ranging, but it’s a more brutal representation than Strutt’s. It’s actually two interwoven stories. One is of an educated, idealist bush ranger, Lucas Wilson, and his attempts to establish an utopian society in the hills behind Hobart in the 1850s. He and his gang supposedly only rob to fund their dream of building a settlement where all are equal and everyone’s work is valued. Wilson, known as The Captain, though, is the charismatic leader. Some bush rangers are more equal than others.
Wilson’s right hand man, Dalton brings young Martin Dixon back to the hideout after encountering him during a robbery at the Dixon farm. Martin has asked to accompany Dalton to learn more about Wilson and his Nowhere Valley, to write a story for the local newspaper. When Dalton agrees, in a prescient understanding of good PR, Martin has the wherewithal to take his father’s new camera with him – despite its size and weight – to take a photo of the renowned Wilson.
This photo of Wilson provides the link to the second story, which features Martin’s great grandson, Hugh Dixon. Set a hundred years later in 1950s Hobart, Hugh is a commercial artist working in advertising while also trying to establish himself as a painter. He re-engages with his great uncle, Walter, an aesthete who loves European art and culture and willingly agrees to loan Hugh money to undertake further studies. Walter also gives Hugh Martin’s photo of Wilson.
While Koch’s characters are complex and well drawn, he is also a master of creating place, and in Lost Voices, as in his other novels such as The Double Man and Highways to a War, he lovingly recreates Hobart in the 1950s. It’s emerging from its remoteness at the bottom of the globe, and his recollections of the city, its architecture and layout are described in fine detail. Anyone who has lived in a city established in early colonial times will have no problems envisaging the kinds of buildings and the sense of history he relates.
The two stories in Lost Voices explore the theme of the embodiment of evil. Both Martin and Hugh encounter men whose behaviour is unsettling and questionable, and who seem to be able to influence and hold sway over others only by suggesting or focusing on an idea. Convict Roy Griffin ends up joining up with Wilson’s gang basically by inveigling and influencing Dalton – he escapes from Port Arthur with him and Dalton doesn’t seem to have a choice but to take Griffin with him. This ability to influence others and their actions ultimately has a catastrophic and detrimental effect on the settlement as its struggles with the landscape and remote location.
In the 1950s Hobart, Hugh meets up with a photographer and commercial artist, Max Fell, whose machinations almost cause the downfall of Hugh’s friend, Bob Wall.
Koch has drawn these kinds of evil characters in the past, most notably in The Doubleman, but elements of characters in The Memory Room, his spy thriller set in and around Canberra, also explore those who dabble in evil. The characters seem to use elements of knowledge of “other worlds” to manipulate or control others – call it witchcraft or hypnotism or mind manipulation – they’re a bit mad, and bad to know.
While Koch’s characters’ complexities are well drawn, the landscape is the other major character in this novel. It provides both a cloak for the convicts escaping, amazingly, from Port Arthur as they work their way into the hinterland of the island. But it is also an adversary, for Dalton and Griffin as they escape, and for Wilson and his community in Nowhere Valley. Their remoteness is an advantage – the police cannot find them. But the tough climate and lack of easy access ultimately hinders them in their goal of independence from society and its strict rules.
Linking Hugh’s and Martin’s stories, Lost Voices is a rich history lesson and a study of two young men’s rites of passage in two different eras. It’s a great read, and is up there with Kate Grenville’s recent works exploring white settlement in Australia in giving us a sense of the past and how it can resonate in the future.