Life is hard for the little family but Molly is more-or-less content with her lot because she has her children and wants them to be loved like she never was. But it’s a job keeping the kiddies safe. The bush in these parts is full of danger, from the floods and snakes to those deadliest of predators – men.
The play is expertly plotted – rapid, economical, relentless – and has a gravity and chiselled bleakness that augments its outraged ferocity and frantic cruelties. Published by Currency Press in 2016 it won book of the year – the top category – at both the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.
This novelised version, however, is a herky-jerky cavalcade of junk literature kitsch and callow grotesquery that dismays rather than shocks. Nothing in it hangs together. Even the cliches – borrowed from American westerns and romance novels – are weirdly mangled: ‘‘Nate’s clenched fist lands, packing quite a punch, on the jaw of a drunken stockman, who falls to the ground, out cold. Nate quickly turns, bobbing under the swinging arm of another.’’
This is bad enough – these punches that are supposed to pack quite a punch – but what’s more distressing is the way Purcell’s prose distorts her more serious intentions.
Here, for example, she describes the prelude to mass rapes perpetrated by white settlers on the Ngarigo people of south-east New South Wales:
‘‘Unfortunately for the Ngarigo women, the white men could not help but be drawn to their beauty, shining in the moonlight: their fresh young pointed breasts; pouting, soft, full lips; small waists and high buttocks; and long, well-shaped legs. With the full moon’s beams bouncing off the women’s velvet-black skin, the white men found it hard to resist their primal urges. But their greed and pompous sense of entitlement led to brutal rapes.’’
Purcell’s sympathy for the women is denied by her erotic fascination with their humiliation and objectification. The scene comes off, however inadvertently, as almost pornographic.
It’s disappointing because the play is such a bracing – and in its way necessary – reinvention for the contemporary moment of Lawson’s most famous short story.
Rather than a gaunt, exhausted housewife worrying at her sewing, Purcell gives us a vigilante feminist with a shotgun and a don’t-f—-with-me stare. She’s a heroine for an age of female superheroes and super villains, for a time when the legitimacy of violence as a response to patriarchal coercion is seriously being debated.
And yet, in this adaptation, Purcell simply doesn’t do what any novelist must do: write compelling and credible descriptions of people, places, things and actions. Why, for example, is the writing so crassly anachronistic? Why is Molly moaning about her hormones in the year 1893? She might as well have a digital watch.
Is this supposed to be a burlesque or a satire? Alas, it comes off as all too sincere, in the blurting, naive and inarticulate sense of that word.
It’s strange how few playwrights manage to reinvent themselves as novelists; but here the falling off between play and novel is extraordinary. There is a movie version in the works – directed by Purcell herself – and that’s something to look forward to because the dramatic potential of this story still tantalises.
And, fortunately, we do still have the play – which will endure and outlive this other calamity.