In selecting my Christmas beach read this year I am definitely guilty of having judged a book by its cover. As soon as I was handed a copy of The Sooterkin I knew it was going to move to the top of my reading pile. A drawing of a seal pup in a nappy and a subheading proclaiming “Half boy! Half seal!” – how could I resist? And while the story didn’t excite me quite as much as the cover-art did, Tom Gilling’s beautifully crafted descriptions of 19th century Tasmania certainly made it worth the read.
In Hobart on July 14th 1821 Sarah Dyer – a convict – gives birth to Arthur – a seal. This odd event is the centrepiece of Gilling’s novel; from it the author moves outwards to explore – in a slightly Dickensian way – the perspectives of a range of characters living on the island, as well as providing a vivid description of the landscape. Reading The Sooterkin is a little like looking at a painting like Pieter Bruegel’s Children’s Games, where there is so much going on and the eye is drawn to so many individual moments. I finished the novel feeling as if I had had both a bird’s eye view and a very specific experience of Gilling’s Van Dieman’s Land. In addition to Sarah Dyer and her family The Sooterkin introduces its readers to the Reverend Mr Kidney, a English clergyman who has relocated to Australia in an effort to get out of debt; Mrs Jakes, a banished former abortionist; and Mr Sculley, founder of the Van Dieman’s Land Scientific Society. It is Sculley who connects Arthur to the Sooterkin – a Dutch legend where women give birth to disturbing, rat-like creatures (type ‘Sooterkin’ into Google images for some weird and wonderful renditions). It is interesting to note that the word Sooterkin has also come to mean something imperfect or unsuccessful, particularly an imperfect literary composition.
My favourite aspect of The Sooterkin is the voice of Gilling’s omniscient narrator. From the very first line (“Pardon the stench”) I knew I was going to enjoy this book. Gilling’s writing finds its strength in its use of wry humour and wonderfully clear sensory description. Happily settled into my banana lounge I was quickly transported from the white-sand Cambodian beach of Koh Rung to “Hobart Town … rancid with [whale] blubber.” Gilling has peppered his novel with character names and incidents taken from actual colonial newspapers, which add a layer of quirky realism to the tale and remind us that strange truths are often the best kernels for interesting fiction. The unnatural events at the centre of the novel are described with a matter-of-factness that lends the story a fairytale feel, and the movement of the narration between characters gives a rounded and satisfying portrait of this world.
In spending so much time examining different characters and describing the setting, however, I felt that the story at the heart of the novel was a little lost. I wouldn’t have minded this so much (I would have been happy to simply dip into different psyches and landscapes for two hundred pages) if Arthur and his story hadn’t been so interesting. In the end, the plot felt a little weak – the link between the title and the birth of the seal pup was not satisfactorily explored, and neither was the potential influence of Arthur’s existence on the community.
Overall, while I thoroughly enjoyed each paragraph as I was reading it, I did feel upon finishing that something was missing. This novel, perhaps as the alternative meaning of its title suggests, is slightly lacking, a little imperfect in terms of structure. But still a great example of elegant, clever, and satirical writing.
Tom Gilling was born in England in 1961, and moved to Australia in 1983. The Sooterkin – published in 1999 – is his first novel.