10 October 2008

The Dark Mountain

by Catherine Jinks

Allen & Unwin. Adult Fiction, History, Australian. Paperback rrp $32.95

There are many levels of darkness here, much deeper than the shadow Mount Gingenbullen casts over Oldbury Farm and its family. The Dark Mountain is set in Sutton Forest, New South Wales, based on a real family and the historical events that surrounded them.

Charlotte Atkinson was born into a life of privilege on a wealthy estate. As she grows older she becomes increasingly aware of the divide between her life and the lives of the convicts and freed men and women around her. She sees clearly the difference a good master like her father makes in comparison to the drunken cruelty of her subsequent stepfather.

After Charlotte’s father dies, her mother capably manages the farm. Then one fateful day Mrs Atkinson heads into the Belanglo wilderness with the farm overseer, Mr Barton, on her way to visit her brother-in-law. Something dark and sinister happens and life is never the same again.

The travellers are attacked by bushrangers, but the story publicly recounted is incomplete and no-one will tell Charlotte the truth. Badly-injured Mr Barton comes to stay and never leaves. Inexplicably, her mother marries him, even though he is hardly a suitable gentleman. It gets much worse. Charlotte and her siblings, Emily, James and Louise are caught up in a new environment of alcoholism, violence and abuse. Then Barton’s mental state begins to unravel even further.

It is a legacy they never escape and the even in later years, the family is fractured and estranged. As long as Mrs Atkinson refuses to say why she married Barton, Charlotte can never forgive. The darkness and its horror, is always there.

This is a wonderfully crafted piece of historical writing. A superb story, carefully researched. Sister Louisa is one of Australia’s earliest women novelists and Catherine Jinks has drawn inspiration and information from her work. John Lynch, whose spectre hangs over the family, was one of the colony’s most infamous serial killers. But even more fascinating is the account of colonial life in the early nineteenth century, forming the backing sheet on which this compelling saga is embroidered.

Highly recommended.


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