In 1797, the ship Sydney Cove is wrecked north of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). Its speculative cargo includes valuable rum. On board are William Clark, partner in the Calcutta trading house that owns the vessel; John Figge, a tea merchant; and Srinivas, a young lascar. These individuals provide three of the five narrations, the other two being Lieutenant Joshua Grayling and his wife, Charlotte, who relate subsequent events.
Leaving behind the rest of the crew, seventeen men take the ship’s longboat, intending to sail it to Sydney and seek rescue. Unfortunately, this vessel too is wrecked on the Australian mainland and the men decide to walk, following the coastline. Along the way they are both helped and hindered by their encounters with Aborigines. Only three make it, and Governor Hunter sends Grayling to interrogate them to find out what happened to the others. It is soon apparent that each individual is hiding something. The cruel Figge is not who he says he is; Clark’s written journal may be deliberately veiled; Srinivas is assumed not to speak English, yet is the key witness to what really happened.
All viewpoints flow smoothly, helped by distinguishing icons on each page, plus there are useful maps. The historical detail can’t be faulted, but there are unsettling sadistic and confrontational passages. The dialogue is mostly convincing, except for the exchanges between Charlotte and Srinivas as it is doubtful a young Bengali seafarer of that era would be quite so erudite. Also, some readers may be left with questions at the conclusion and it is recommended they pursue their own research. The author is clearly prepared for any controversy with provisos in his notes: “… some parts of this story are ‘truer’ than others…” and “Perhaps all of this is history, or none of it.”