Review: The Dark Mountain by Catherine Jinks

dark_mountain.jpg Catherine Jinks
Allen and Unwin, 488 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Bernadette Gooden

Based on historical fact, this is a deeply disturbing story of how the course of a life can be changed tragically forever by the events of a single day; how a family can be torn apart by a terrible secret.

Charlotte Atkinson was the oldest of four siblings who were being raised by their widowed mother in wealthy circumstances on a huge farm called Oldbury in the penal colony of New South Wales in the 1830's. In those days it was an isolated place with a small, tight-knit community. The work was done by convict labour and life was cruel and basic for these people. There was also a very strict class structure to be adhered to, with everybody knowing his or her place.

Catherine Jinks skilfully recreates the daily lives of these people, the harsh conditions and the never-ending work of running a large station. Charlotte's mother is a strong figure, a gentlewoman left alone to run Oldbury, helped only by her overseer, George Barton, a man universally disliked for his cruelty and coarseness.

On the thirtieth of January, 1836, in the Belanglo Forest, an incident involving Mrs. Atkinson, George Barton and a group of men never identified took place. The incident was shrouded in mystery.

For the family it was the beginning of a nightmare of madness and violence that scarred their lives, making them outcasts from the small community of "civilised people" they inhabited. Charlotte, the only child old enough to remember the chain of events from the beginning, spends the rest of her life trying to solve the mystery of what happened that day. The story is told from her point of view, expressed in the language of a well-educated woman from her era.

There are many references to the harsh realities of life for these early settlers and the brooding, inhospitable landscape that oppressed them at Oldbury, made unsafe by gangs of bushrangers. Later, when the story takes the family to Sydney Town, the hustle and bustle of the thriving, growing city is brilliantly evoked, along with a glimpse into the social life of people at that time. Charlotte, who was so deeply traumatised, tries hard to get to the bottom of the source of her misery. Her investigation reveals a connection with Australia's earliest known serial killer, a fascinating side story to the main narrative. She slowly pieces together the story from newspaper articles (hard to come by in the bush) and gossip.

I found this a great read and thoroughly gripping. There are also a lot of well researched historical details, including the fact that Charlotte's sister, Louisa Atkinson Calvert, grew up to be Australia's first female novelist. There are many references to the events set out in The Dark Mountain in her work apparently, so I will look forward to reading some of her novels. For anyone interested in stories about Australia and our history this is a must. Catherine Jinks is a talented writer who certainly takes us on an interesting journey back in to a dark part of our story as a nation.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on January 23, 2009 2:11 PM.

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