I’ve just spent a year writing a book about castaways on a remote, southern New Zealand island in the early 1860s and sent it off for consideration, when a friend told me about Charlotte Randall’s The Bright Side of My Condition, set about 50 years earlier on the Snares, with seals and storms and miserable conditions. I almost died. She’s already written my story – I wailed.
But of course, she hadn’t. There is more than one story set in the frozen southern oceans and many ways to tell ’em.
Randall’s is based on a true story of four convict men who have escaped Norfolk penal colony, without much planning or foresight, stowing away on a sealing ship. The captain drops them on a desolate island with a trypot and some basic necessities and tells them to collect a payment of seal skins. He’ll pick them up in a year. The felons are so pleased to be free of the jail that this seems a reasonable exchange. A decade passes.
This is not a story so much about what they do, but about what one man thinks about it all. There is little background story and you get the feeling our narrator is not the sharpest tool in the box, nor the most observant, at least of his fellow felons. Bloodworth is his adopted name — “It ain’t a name I every heared of before it were thrust upon me” — but he never offers us an alternative. He speaks in the vernacular of an uneducated man and admits, almost proudly, that he is a lazy man. He likes to sit and watch. “Maybe my laziness turn inside out and show itself a virtue, maybe I’m jes a whole lot less trouble when I’m sitting on my arse.”
I love the shape of these words. It took me a page to get into the rhythm and then every time I picked up the book I was instantly in place — like watching a movie where the characters speak with a heavy southern drawl and the banjos start duelling in your head. “Well, I aint green. I aint tired. I aint obedient. None of my nasty brothers is neither.” Boom! Back in the 1810s with a bunch of scurvey felons.
Bloodworth soon rubs their self-appointed leader, Slangam, up the wrong way and their animosity festers. Slangam can’t abide idleness and is a nasty bully. The other characters are no more appealing: Gargantua, aka Fatty or Flonker (again, no real name is offered) thinks himself intellectually superior and pontificates uselessly and constantly: “…fact is he got a schooling none of the rest of us were gave”. And pathetic Toper becomes the cook who turns out consistently tasty food (which seems surprising under the circumstances until you realise “tasty” is a relative term and these men have escaped Norfolk). Toper himself is incapable of independent thought and is a slavish follower.
Randall takes a rare direct line in telling this story. She shoots straight from her character’s head and ignores the reader. I want all the background stuff: the mechanics of survival, how the hut is constructed, why it doesn’t blow down, how the potatoes grow so miraculously, how they treat the seal skins before stitching them, why they aren’t ill and starving, how they survive so long with such a lack of desire to do anything much to improve their lot? But Randall writes Bloodworth’s thoughts and Bloodworth just doesn’t care. He is not an inquisitive man and not at all interested in the practical. So, the potatoes came up every year. Sometimes there are seals and sometimes not. Slangam organises their lives and Bloodworth labours as directed, unless he can sneak off to sit down. But he doesn’t question.
The men are frightened of the woods, the strange creatures and spirits it might harbour. This is a tiny, skinny island only 3km long and the men are reluctant to explore what they might exploit. Even after years they still don’t know whether there are animals on the island. “This spring I roam far and wide to collect the branches, further and further than ever before, the fear of strange walking beasts that keeped me close to my brothers seem to of left me. Indeed, I wud really like to find such a beast and eat it. My mouth water jes to think of a unsalted roasted limb with a herb dressing, even if I’m pretty sure there aint no such beasts here.”
Bloodworth’s laziness is in direct contrast to what you’d think would be required to survive this life but there is no bonding between the men, no whole bigger than the miserable parts. The others talk and talk in circles, the dull repetition of confined men and Bloodworth grows increasingly irritated by them. So he finds a place on the cliff from where he can observe the penguins and he sits all alone. He watches the birds. After a few years he begins to ponder life’s big issues and gets philosophical about penguin lives and the human condition.
“The strange weather continue on. I watch the penguins and wish everything for us were simple as their lives, and maybe before Adam and Eve met the serpent and et the apple we do jes live penguin lives. We jes live the way we were made, without no contrivance. The trouble for man is some men were made outright pigs, and they always seem to be the ones that get a hold of everything. It might seem jes a coincidence but maybe it aint, maybe such grasping is the nature of pighood. Ah, what do I care.”
The guts of the story is in its title. Daniel Defoe has Robinson Crusoe saying: “I learned to look more upon the bright side of my condition, and less upon the dark side, and to consider what I enjoyed, rather than what I wanted : and this gave me sometimes such secret comforts, that I cannot express them.”
The end is surprising and extraordinary. Brilliant. Not telling, but I can’t remember when I was last so delighted with the final chapter of a book.