Prof. Stephen Torre Short Review of ‘Identity’

Dec 6, 2023 | 0 comments

 

The outlaws, outcasts and just the plain poor during the colonial period in Australia have been the subject of fiction ranging from entertaining romances to slightly more gritty accounts of crime and punishment. Peter Long’s earlier work, Steve Hart: The Last Kelly Standing, and now this, Identity: Larry Cummins – Bushranger attest to his wider and deeper knowledge and understanding of the period and its players. The recreation of the everyday lives of the characters is absolutely convincing—as is the presentation of their emotional and psychological lives. Peter Long’s ability to render the fine details of life in this period with historical authenticity is on a level equal to Hilary Mantel’s writing about Cromwell and the 17th Century in England.

Identity is structured around several accounts of key periods in the life of Larry Cummins narrated by himself and others (like his mother, wife, and so on). These seemingly arbitrary slices of life are more subtly interrelated than might appear on a casual reading, and dramatize the theme of identity.

Larry’s first-person accounts of the physical and psychological trauma of incarceration by the colonial authorities are intensely affective and disturbing. The descriptions of the brutal attempts to break prisoners’ resistance and annihilate their identity would stand up against similar narratives of personal degradation in world literature—Primo Levi’s If This is A Man and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag books come to mind.

In conventional novels authors strive to create character arcs which build and deepen a character’s identity. Although in this work we have several in-depth presentations of the main character at various points in his life, as well as from other characters’ points of view, circumstance force him to adopt different identities as he seeks to leave his early life on the other side of the law behind him. Paradoxically, while readers gain an intensely affective insight into Larry Cummins’ personality, in the final chapter where the dramatic personae of the novel are gathered for a wake/inquisition into Larry’s life, they all give contradictory accounts of him. When it is noted that even his grave can’t be located it is concluded ‘He’s as hard to locate in death, as he is in life.’ This is a clever twist in this narratively sophisticated novel—and plays around the themes of identity and history. While Peter Long’s research has resulted in acutely realistic recreations of people, places, surroundings and settings, social manners and mores, pinning down the self is much more ephemeral—especially when repressive institutions necessitate transformations of the self as a means of self-preservation.

Bushranging narratives tend to be focalized through male experience, with women playing minor parts in the sidelines. Peter Long is to be admired for foregrounding the lives of women in the colonial period, and their agency in both personal and social life.