Though The Untold is a work of fiction, it is inspired by the life of Jessie Hickman, a circus rider, horse thief, convict, fugitive, and all-around wild woman who hid out in the Australian Outback in the 1920s. This is Australian author Courtney Collins’s debut novel, published as The Burial in Australia in 2012 and also released in Europe. The book has already garnered critical acclaim and been shortlisted for several awards.
The novel opens with an almost unspeakable scene. Jessie’s premature baby describes the morning of its birth and its death, when its mother slits its throat, and buries it. Of course, with an act so horrific, Collins must undo it immediately: the buried baby does not die, but rather continues to live on beneath the ground—and to narrate the novel. Within the first ten pages, Collins has set herself up: instead of a book written to earn its ending, every word after the beginning bears the weight of the novel’s origins.
As a recent NPR interview with Courtney Collins made clear, Jessie’s motivations in the book’s first scene are never entirely apparent. It is only after the opening passage that the reader learns Jessie had just killed her husband—an abusive man who forced her into marriage—and burned down his house. It is only after Jessie kills her child that we learn how sickly it was, and that she believed it was already dying. After this, Jessie is on the run. On her path are Sergeant Barlow, who suffers from a heroin addiction (back then it was legal, but frowned upon), and Jack Brown, an Aboriginal tracker, Jessie’s former lover.
It must be said: the novel is a page-turner. It is composed of short, readable chapters. Scattered throughout the narrative threads in the present are a series of flashbacks—of Jack and Jessie’s romance, of Jessie’s time in the circus—and this all gives the book a wonderful forward momentum, the storylines in the past mounting and advancing alongside those in the present. The novel is populated by an old couple, a mountain gang, burlesque dancers, bloodthirsty men, circus performers, and, of course, horses. Houdini, Jessie’s trusted horse, weaves in and out of the storyline. It is no surprise that The Untold has been optioned for a film, and some of the later plot twists do possess the shallow shock-value of a blockbuster.
Though The Untold is set in Australia in the early twentieth century, it has echoes of the American Western. It is no surprise that Collins, who names Cormac McCarthy as one of her influences, said “the way characters like Jessie and Jack Brown move through that landscape full of longing and loneliness, feels to me to be very much like a Western, which is straight out of an American tradition.” Many of the scenes in The Untold would be at home in a Western were it not for the roving packs of kangaroos that cut across them.
Still, the biggest mystery of The Untold remains Jessie herself, the very woman who Collins set out to capture in fiction. While the novel is supposedly narrated by Jessie’s departed child, the vast majority of it feels like straight-up, traditional third-person omniscient. For most of the text, there is no indication that the child’s voice is the one telling this story. The narrative inhabits the mind of Jack Brown (his feelings for Jessie are some of the most palpable in the novel: “Was it love, then, to want to capture her? It did not feel right to him. But in truth he had wanted her to be his.”); it often explores the complicated thoughts of Sergeant Barlow; it will occasionally assume the perspective of more minor characters or zoom out to describe the herds of men on Jessie’s trail. The passages when the book delves deep into the lost baby’s perspective are moving, but few (“I do not know death as a river. I know it as a magic hall of mirrors and within it there is a door and the door opens both ways.”). In a story in which horror after horror and tragedy after tragedy unfolds—the reader sometimes craves a more complicated interiority from Jessie, who carries out much of the action. However, in the majority of passages from Jessie’s perspective, we are held at a frustrating distance in crucial moments.
When asked about her choice of point-of-view in the recent NPR interview, Collins replied: “And I guess the more I was coming to understand Jessie and the person that she was, she was really—she was a woman of action, just not a woman of words.” But isn’t it the privilege of the novel to explore the workings of the most mysterious characters? To conjure not only their actions but their strangest thoughts and motivations? It is fiction’s unique power to explore this terrifying place, and The Untold never truly takes advantage of it. Suffice it to say that this novel makes clear that Collins is a bold author of notable talent. I have a feeling that her best work is yet to come.
Reviewed by Sadye Teiser
Publisher: Einhorn Books/Putnam
Pub date: May 29, 2014