I was delighted to find a lovely review of Thicker Than Water in The Times’ Saturday Review section this weekend – I was especially pleased to find it was written by Melanie Reid, whose Spinal Column in The Times Magazine (about her recovery from a terrible riding accident, which left her tetraplegic) I have often admired for its bravery and emotional acuity.
The resulting book is stunning. Thicker than Water is a thrilling debut, a true story that reads like classy, compelling fiction…
Thicker than Water combines memoir, history, travelogue and lyrical nature writing into a dramatic page-turner. It succeeds above all because of its two striking protagonists: the dishonourable, flawed McMillan, as brave and brutal and morally ambiguous as his century, and Flyn herself. Her ballsiness and likeability, as the narrator and the heroine of the travelogue, made her an irresistible companion
The full review can be found on the Times website here (£) or after the fold.
The butcher the Aborigines called ‘Ghost’
Melanie Reid is gripped by a gutsy account of tracing an ancestor’s crimes in AustraliaMelanie Reid
Thicker Than Water History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir by Cal Flyn William Collins, 224pp; £16.99 * £14.99 Angus McMillan was a tough, shrewd young Gael who realised that he had no future in the famine-ravaged Scotland of the 1830s. Dispossessed by the Highland Clearances, he bought passage on a ship bound for Australia. There he was to become a founding father of the state of Victoria, his achievements as an explorer celebrated in place names, cairns and plaques. As British exports went, he seemed to be among the finest, a moral, hardworking man who brought brains and bravery to the New World. His tenacity, battling over the mountains, led to the discovery of Gippsland, a fertile land where the pioneers could flourish.
Little wonder that nearly 200 years later a very 21st-century woman, a young journalist in London called Cal Flyn, felt a thrill of pride when she read the accolades. She basked in the reflected glory of her famous ancestor, her great-great-great uncle, Angus, he who helped to shape the modern world.
It was only when she delved deeper that the picture grew dark. Heroes can become villains in seconds. McMillan, she read, the words searing her eyes, was responsible for the massacre of Aborigines in Australia; even worse, he seemed to have pursued a decade-long campaign of genocide. He had opened up a land of promise for virtuous white settlers, but the hidden price was mass murder.
Surely it was unthinkable; that a proud, pious man a Scotsman, for heaven’s sake, champion of underdogs, freedom and self-determination having himself been displaced by bullying, colonising aristocrats, should cross the world to inflict even more terrible grief on another small people. To repeat the crime.
How could the victim of a terrible oppression become the Butcher of Gippsland, leader of the posse they called the Highland Brigade, who from 1840-50 wiped the Gunai tribe off the map? For Flyn, it was profoundly shocking. The familial link became shackles. She was smitten by what she describes as inter-generational guilt: the shame felt by those, such as the descendants of Holocaust perpetrators, who feel unwelcome responsibility for their ancestors’ actions and are driven to try to understand why they happened.
She gave up a career in London, where she worked for The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Times, and set out to retrace McMillan’s journey for answers. Born restless, her personal life had reached a hiatus and she saw in her quest the possibility of salvation and an intellectual redemption. She left the UK when she was the same age as McMillan, 27.
The resulting book is stunning. Thicker than Water is a thrilling debut, a true story that reads like classy, compelling fiction. Part of the appeal is its freshness: we know so well the story of the American West; we’ve seen Hollywood’s version; we’ve read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. However, like Flyn, how many of us were aware that the tragic clash between European settlers and indigenous people was replicated so bloodily in Australia, an epic land grab that shaped the world. In its proximity to us who, post-Empire, does not have a branch of their family in Australia? there is real resonance.
The concept of territory, as defined by 19th-century Australian colonist law, was terra nullius, no man’s land. The Aborigines, who wandered, picking fruit, catching fish, did not till the soil and were considered wild animals. The Gunais of Gippsland watched the white men arrive and they were at first terrified. They thought they were ghosts.
The Gunais believed that their dead tribesmen came back and moved among them at night, and they venerated the dead with pale ash. They were not cannibals, but occasionally, as an act of conquest, they would eat a symbolic piece of a tribal enemy’s body, scorching off the skin to the eerie white flesh beneath. When they saw McMillan, they recognised his skin as the pallor of death. “Mrart”, they called him. Ghost.
The Gunais retreated. Then they got angry and began to fight back, slaughtering cattle and sheep, attacking, killing. A myth grew up that they had captured alive a white woman and were defiling her. The settlers who of course had happily assuaged their lust on native women from the beginning took revenge. Ghosts astride terrifying horses, with the bewildering magic of a gun, who could strike down Aborigines at 100 paces with a sudden crack and a fountain of blood.
In their hoofprints, Flyn pushed through the swamp to the unmarked Warrigal Creek, where in 1843 McMillan and his men ambushed a Gunai camp, slaughtering men, women and children, driving them into the water to finish them off. Up to 200 may have died. One boy was kept alive and ordered to lead them to other camps, where they did it again. On and on it went.
The depravity of McMillan’s actions was tightly concealed at the time and is still a matter of embarrassment in Australia today, something covered with a shrug and a muttered “those were different times; we’ve moved on”. However, Flyn confronted it with a journalist’s rigour.
Thicker than Water combines memoir, history, travelogue and lyrical nature writing into a dramatic page-turner. It succeeds above all because of its two striking protagonists: the dishonourable, flawed McMillan, as brave and brutal and morally ambiguous as his century, and Flyn herself. Her ballsiness and likeability, as the narrator and the heroine of the travelogue, made her an irresistible companion. One is glad that in the end she found herself, and came to understand, if not quite to forgive, her ancestor.