Book review: The Bright Side of My Condition

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Charlotte Randall has an incredible facility for creating worlds and making them her own.
Charlotte Randall has an incredible facility for creating worlds and making them her own.

The charming title of this book is a quotation from The Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe. It's rather fitting, considering it's about four convicts who escape from a Norfolk Island prison in the early 19th century and survive a period on the lam in Sydney, only to find themselves cast away on one of the Snares Islands, 200km south of the South Island.

This inhospitable island is really only suitable for seals and penguins, yet these four convicts are deposited on it with a cooking pot and a few potatoes, which wisely they plant. The captain of the ship didn't have food enough for stowaways but promised to be back within the year to collect them - and their only real instruction while on the island, aside from staying alive, is to try seal culling.

A decade later they are rescued, but it's the intervening years that form the narrative, during which time alliances form and relationships fracture.

Based on a true story, the four men do whatever they must to survive on this Godforsaken island at the bottom of the world.

One takes the role of leader and is also a dab hand at clubbing seals; another cooks, doing what he can with the monotonous food sources; a third declaims and brags and minces about while dabbling in tasks; and Bloodworth, our narrator, collects firewood and sews clothes from seal skin - a vitally important role. Liberated yet hardly free, bit by bit their stories emerge and sometimes, even, confessions are made.

To stay sane, Bloodworth spends a lot of time away from the camp, studying the natural world, which he finds fascinating, but the others do not like this. They find it queer and start to accuse him of things - of going mad, or plotting a revolution. And when he steals a few green potatoes in the hopes of getting some sort of high, the others take advantage of his transgression and punish him, confining him to a solitary cell, a hole dug in the ground. Despite them all being convicted prisoners, the moral high ground is greedily taken.

But Bloodworth rises above the trials and uses the penguin colony as a source of escape, the basis of his naive yet heart-warming philosophising as he contemplates hubris and bliss, crime and punishment.

The penguins become for him a symbol of something bigger, connecting all living things.

"Now the sea and the fish and the birds turn out to be my chief delight. It ain't jes because them other felons is a bunch of arseholes neither, there's arseholes everywhere, and it ain't jes because there's nothing else to do. It's because I discover penguin fish have a family life and a way of doing things, and its way of living go on no matter what the lunatic King orders or the poxy Norfolk jailers think or them sad green London virgins pray for. It go on with rules and games and conversations and tragedies jes like a play and it give the lie to them churchmen that say only humans can have a show."

The Bright Side of My Condition is a brilliant read, on a par with Randall's other excellent works of fiction. She has an incredible facility for creating worlds and making them her own, speaking in voices that sound authentic to the time, character and place.

It'd make a fabulous film, too, if any producers are reading this.

Suffice to say, this book comes highly recommended and, if Randall doesn't win lots of awards for it, I'll eat my hat.

The Bright Side of My Condition by Charlotte Randall (Penguin $30).

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- NZ Herald

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