The Soldier’s Curse

Written by Meg Keneally Tom Keneally
Review by Val Loh

Set in 1825 in the early years of the Australian colony, this first novel in The Monsarrat Series is set in Port Macquarie. The penal colony was established as a place for secondary punishment for reoffending convicts. Spared from the harsher life on the road gangs or in working the lime kilns, gentleman forger, Hugh Monsarrat, is serving his term as a convict clerk to Commandant Major Angus Shelborne. The mystery begins when the commandant’s wife, Honora, falls ill and dies as he sets off to try and locate a water source, a rumoured river. It is soon apparent that she has been the victim of slow poisoning—but by whom? Both Hugh and his friend, the housekeeper Mrs Mulrooney, suspect the motives of the cruel second-in-command, Captain Diamond, but are outmanoeuvred when he has her arrested for murder. Only Hugh can try to save her from the noose.

This exceptionally well-written novel combines fascinating historical factual detail into carefully crafted, fast-paced fiction. We are taken back to a time that was harsh and often unjustly cruel, as shown through the actions of Captain Diamond. The settlers’ ignorance of the indigenous Birpai people, who were both friendly and helpful by returning escapees, is shown clearly, as is their love of the land. They have a healthy respect for it, unlike the European arrivals who would own it. I was totally absorbed by the characters of Hugh Monsarrat, his friend, housekeeper Mrs Mulrooney and the likeable Private Fergal Slattery. They strive to survive within this strict regime, miles from home in a beautiful, yet unforgiving environment. Their relationships are complex as are their back stories, as are their motives—an excellent read.