Saturday, 21 February 2009


If you haven't realised that it is the year of all things Darwin, then you're not paying attention! It is everywhere on the ABC, and biology departments the world over are in a frenzy of excitement, busily preparing papers on the subject and looking forward to a year long gabfest about the Origin of the Species.

Me too.

There is a beautiful new bookshop just opened up in my neck of the woods, and in a fit of excitement at the prospect of a bookshop advertising itself as the place where art and science meet, I offered to do a talk to their book club. Not about my book, but about Mr Darwin's Shooter, by Roger McDonald. This novel was the subject of my honours thesis, and is just about the best thing I have ever been involved with. I did all the over seas rights contracts on the book when it sold into UK, US and European territories. It was hugely exciting at the time - a potential best selling work of Australian fiction.

So, I retrieved the thesis from a box under the bed and read it this morning. What is extraordinary about it is that there, amid the academic literary verbage, are many of the ideas that turn up in my own book. Things I thought I had somehow just thought up in response to the philosophical questions I look at in Art Life Chooks, have actually been buried in my consciousness for ten years, like fossils, buried deep in my sedimentary layers of being. 

I'm going to talk about the notion that there little difference between historical (indeed any) fiction and historical non-fiction. All is subjective, filtered through the mind of the author. All is the work of imagination. The luxury that historical fiction enjoys is the advantage of fictional technique, and an audience expectation that the history will be sound, but that it will be 'lived' by the book's characters, rather than being a force that history's players are subjected to.

Mr Darwin's Shooter is the story of Syms Covington - Darwin's servant on the Beagle who shot and trapped, dug and lugged Darwin's specimens collected on that voyage, and who later followed him to England, and copied Darwin's notes. Darwin only mentions Covington once, in a letter, in which he writert "I do not like him much, but he is well adapted to my purpose.' Through this character, McDonald imagines what it must have been like to be Covington, so intimately involved with Darwin's project, but not even worth a footnote in the great man's history. It imagines how he must have felt about being present at the birth of possibly the biggest moment in human consciousness since the removal of Earth from the centre of the universe, knowing that it will shatter his personal faith in Christ.

It is a marvelous book, full of big ideas and intimate detail, but best of all, it is a boy's-own adventure of the sea, a heroic quest for transformation, and finally, redemption. Brilliant stuff.

So, in this year of all things Darwin, impress your friends with your intimate understanding of what it meant for an ordinary man who lived in interesting times and grab a copy of Mr Darwin's Shooter.


  1. You could make a study on pubic hair sound interesting.

    Sounds good, I'll keep an eye out for it. I need to read something that isn't about the military....I think.

  2. You'll love it - it really is a boy's own adventure.