The Wreck

Written by Meg Keneally
Review by Julia Stoneham

By the mid-1800s, the authorities in both England and the rapidly developing young cities in Australia were trying to contain demonstrations and uprisings demanding better conditions and pay for workers. Some organised events became as violent, unjustified, and tragic as the infamous Peterhouse confrontation, which killed and injured many citizens, including the parents of Meg Keneally’s central character, Sarah McCaffrey.

With both parents dead and her brother executed for his part in a failed assassination attempt, Sarah, herself sought by the police and still seething with grief and political extremism, boards a ship bound for Sydney. Badly maintained and poorly skippered, the vessel is wrecked as it approaches the entrance to Sydney Harbour.

Sarah, the sole survivor of this tragedy, finds employment with Molly Thistle, an almost Fagin-like character who has prospered hugely in the underworld of this corrupt and corrupting city. Her political convictions still foremost in her mind, Sarah pursues them, contacting like-minded groups and becoming involved in subversive meetings.

This leads to near-disaster when Mrs Thistle discovers that she is being deceived and used by Sarah, who is by now enduring punishment for her convictions. Mrs Thistle comes to her aid and a mutual respect slowly develops between the two of them.

Meg Keneally has worked hard to convey the history and the atmosphere of early Sydney, and she tells her story in a very cool and honest, if rather pedestrian, manner. The relationship between Sarah and Mrs Thistle is what lies at the heart of the narrative, ready for a full-blooded exploitation by the writer which, for me, simply does not happen.