Echo Publishing, an imprint of Bonnier Books UK, 2019
Based on the life of Cornish convict Mary Bryant, Fled is the story of a remarkable sea voyage, a daring escape from the colony of NSW by a group of convicts in a small open boat over thousands of sea miles, much of it uncharted.
Meg Keneally joins a number of earlier writers in bringing this tale to us with her fictitious character Jenny Gwyn nee Trelawney. As much as it is an adventure on the seas story, this is a character driven tale, delving deeply into the nature of Jenny and her skill in reading and manipulating those around her.
Her daring escape plan is motivated by the fear of starving to death in a colony increasingly beset by natural and man-made woes. The lives of her children are foremost in her mind as she brings together the elements needed for this daring plot.
We cannot but admire Jenny’s intelligence and resourcefulness, her sheer physical courage as she faces gigantic seas and often hostile, lesser and foolish men to achieve her goal. That she is stumped at every turn by fortune does not deter her and to the end we see her maintain her strength of purpose, her dignity and her independence.
The backdrop to this story of sea escape is the brutal penal system of Britain of the time, the machinations and rivalries of colonists from rival countries and an unjust system of punishment under the law. We read in other places of the arrogance of British colonists coming to Australia and ignoring the evidence before their eyes of a pre-existing system of life and land managed by the Indigenous custodians. This too forms an element of Meg Keneally’s story as our heroine learns how to maintain her family’s status as the fish bringers by learning where and how to fish in the ocean waters from the Aboriginal woman Mawberry, whom she befriends despite having no common language.
Deft weaving of historical fact and thoroughly engaging fiction drive this story along at a cracking pace and it is impossible to put it down without finding points of resolution along the way. We are all, I am sure, satisfied that Mary Bryant, and hence our own Jenny Gwyn, finds a champion in James Boswell and Richard Aldred respectively. The bestiality of the treatment of the captured convicts by the fictional Captain Andrews, again based on a real captain of equal nastiness, engenders our sympathy as it did of the British public of the time and helps to bring about the final pardoning of Mary/Jenny and the release of her confreres.
While fact and fiction are playmates in this book, we are totally won over as readers. Meg Keneally not only writes a plot that holds us in thrall, but creates people for whom we have deep sympathy despite their criminal pasts. We see the best and the worst of human nature in this book, in equal parts for those considered ‘good’ and those considered ‘bad’. Life, and fiction are never that simple.
Fled is a monumental saga, domestic and national, and a bay window view onto our past as white Australians, immigrants all.