The Mind’s Own Place

Written by Ian Reid
Review by Marina Maxwell

Inspired in part by real events and the early pioneers of the Swan River Colony, this novel tells the story of five individuals, principally two convicts from respectable English backgrounds who are transported to Western Australia for crimes that are “foolish rather than vicious” and how they struggle to make amends to society and rise above disgrace.

Thomas is an architect and engineer, trained in the railway workshops of Robert Stephenson, who ought to find success but becomes instead a victim of family circumstances and his own obstinate righteousness. Alfred’s passion for finer things leads him down a slippery slope to fraud and then shame. Although both men are intelligent and enterprising and are later linked via their marriages, their routes through life are markedly different.

And then there’s Runty, the undercover policeman originally sent on a special assignment to spy on Irish Fenian political prisoners but who eventually becomes Western Australia’s first detective. The wives of Thomas and Alfred, Polly and Amelia, come to the Colony as free settlers but have to deal with their own weaknesses, tragedies and family secrets.

Whether he is describing the slums of Bermondsey, the British railway boom, the fiery kilns of the Potteries, tedious ocean voyages or the “powdery windblown dunes” of the Colony, the author’s prose is always vivid and evocative, almost poetic. The dialogue, moral dilemmas and contradictions are all handled with equally exquisite expression.

It’s been a long time since I came to the end of a novel and immediately wanted to read it again to uncover more of its nuances. Ian Reid is a revelation, and he deserves the widest recognition as a remarkable ambassador for Australian historical fiction.