Based on the true story of sealers abandoned by their captain in the King George Sound in the south of Western Australia in the 1820s, Sarah Drummond’s The Sound draws on subject matter similar to Sarah Hay’s 2001 Vogel Award-winning novel Skins. While Skins was told from the perspective of a young marooned English woman, The Sound is largely told from the perspective of Wiremu Heke, a native of Otakau, New Zealand.
Known as ‘Billhook’ by his fellow mariners, Wiremu sails the southern oceans in search of Captain Kelly of the Sophia, who in 1817 perpetrated a brutal raid on Wiremu’s village. Seeking to avenge the raid and to restore pride and spiritual health to his people, Wiremu signed on as a sealer with the Governor Brisbane. ‘We have strong hearts and are sons of high birth,’ says Wiremu, of himself and the other young Maori men who roam the seas in search of vengeance.
Though his search is rather aimless, Wiremu’s sense of spiritual purpose sets him apart from his crewmates who are hardened by isolation, deprivation and back-breaking labour. They are at the mercy of the elements and must trust that their captain, Boss Davidson, who has left small crews of twos and threes along the coast to cull the seal population, will return for them as promised. Alone at the edge of the world, they ‘knew themselves to be the only exotics on the western edge of a continent so vast it took a month to sail its breadth’.
With the British yet to stake their claim on Western Australia, and the order offered by the Aboriginal people of the area no order at all in the eyes of the mariners, A Lord of the Flies baseness reigns. The crew members are resourceful and brave, but hunger, fear and anarchy steadily erodes what humanity they might once have possessed. There is ‘no softness in this world, only sharp, hard stuff and hate’.
This baseness is most apparent in the mariners’ treatment of Sal, Dancer and Mary, Pallawah women captured in Tasmania and forced to accompany the sealers on their travels. The women’s knowledge of country makes them indispensable. They know where to find water and are expert hunters and gatherers, provisioning the men with the muttonbird, kangaroo, berries and tubers without which they would starve. They are also fine sealers, hunting the animals for their skins and oil.
But for all their importance as labourers and providers, the women are treated as commodities to be bartered and sold in the coarsest manner possible. When the sealers encounter the American ship Sally, the women are exchanged in the same breath as rum and tobacco. ‘They won’t take long to blow,’ one of the sealers says to a desolate Sal. ‘They’ve not had a woman in an age.’
Wiremu is notionally the moral centre of the book; but The Sound’s real narrative force is exerted by the women. Abducted and repeatedly sold and violated, the women’s attempts to remain connected to their songlines, country and each other are heartbreaking and powerful. Dancer resists her captors by refusing to speak their language and through repeated infanticide. ‘No white man’s been able to keep his children with Dancer’, complains one of the crew. ‘She kills all her babies…Stuffs grass in their mouths the moment they are born’.
Sal, Dancer, Mary and Wiremu draw closer together when one of the crew, Samuel Bailey, kidnaps a young Aboriginal girl. Terrified by her abductor, the child urinates on him, earning her the name ‘Weed’. Wiremu is complicit in Weed’s abduction and, later, that of a woman named Moennan. Moennan’s abduction requires the male Aboriginal warriors to be neutralised while the women are taken; this has tragic consequences. For some, Weed’s abduction is a bridge too far, but for others it makes pragmatic sense: ‘Before they bleed they can fuck and work and work and fuck and not have babies’. The ostensible nobility of Wiremu’s original purpose erodes under the turpitude to which he is a party. Finally unable to bear witness any longer, he takes drastic action.
The Sound can make for tough reading. The sexual violence, while never gratuitous, is hard going, and scenes of seal culling are also brutal and unflinching. The sea is a central protagonist in Drummond’s text, and she evokes its capacity for both plenty and fury. At one point the crew is caught in a storm near the Doubtful Islands:
There would be no sleep. A night of listening for the sounds of the sea changing, listening for the reefs and the bommies, watching for the glint of whatever in the distance, in a sea that was already a knife-like swathe of cold wind and flying spray and the sound of roaring water in their ears.
Making matters worse, the vulnerable boat is pursued by a shark.
Occasionally the prose is a little over-wrought (‘the water dropping into a hidden, dark pool and the ever-present suck and boom of the unplumbed sea’) but the narrative is tight and well-paced.
There is an inherent conflict in every historical novel, between faithfulness to the historical record and the demands of narrative. Drummond manages this tension deftly – Drummond’s PhD is in history rather than creative writing, and her grasp of the source material allows the record to inform the story, rather than proclaim its authenticity. The Sound is a considered and moving survival story with much of historical interest to recommend it.
The Sound is available now at Readings.