A Thousand Tongues

Written by Ian Reid
Review by Marina Maxwell

The title comes from Shakespeare’s Richard III, “My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, and every tongue brings in a several tale …” And that is exactly what this book is: an exploration of conscience via several narratives that initially seem disparate but that eventually tie together. The bleak confronting setting of Princetown Prison on Dartmoor provides a major backdrop.

The principal characters are Gavin Staines, a conscientious objector of World War I who hides a dark secret in his past; Joshua Dunn, a 1880s black circus performer who takes the extraordinary step of breaking back into prison after his release from it; and Tim and Valerie, two modern-day Australian historians grappling with matters of academic conscience in their respective research projects as well as their own ambiguous personal relationship. To complicate matters, a Turkish student, Kemal, is murdered on campus, possibly a victim of hate-related crime. There are also quirks in genealogy and debate as to the merits, even benefits, of learning history through fiction as opposed to academic rigour. Plus there are musings over current Australian social issues and the clamour on race and immigration.

With its main focus on how conscience played out in the past and how it impacts the present, the novel will certainly open one’s eyes as to the treatment of those who suffered, and continue to suffer, from the blessing (or scourge) of having a conscience. The last word from Gavin Staines: “To go this way – no, that way … To do something or not to do it … Sooner or later it all resolves itself into a definite sense of what’s the right decision. But sometimes that comes too late, when you’ve already made the wrong choice.”

A fine and complex novel that will give the reader much thought.