A Thousand Tongues
I always find Ian Reid’s work interesting, as we share a fascination with the past and the stories it has to tell. And so I was delighted to hear he has published a new book, which was launched in Perth yesterday.
A Thousand Tongues is Ian’s fourth historical novel, following on from The Mind’s Own Place (which he discusses here), That Untravelled World and The End of Longing. It was partly written during his tenure of a J.S. Battye Memorial Fellowship.
He has also published poetry and several kinds of non-fiction, and his books have been translated into five languages, widely anthologised, and have won international recognition including the Antipodes prize for poetry.
Ian’s research for A Thousand Tongues appears to have taken him far and wide, across time and space. Here is the book’s blurb:
The action of Ian Reid’s latest novel, A Thousand Tongues, extends across a century and a half. Among the story’s settings are the moorlands of Devon and military camps in Normandy, Liverpool docks and a London cemetery, a circus in regional Lancashire and a memorial park in central Perth. But as a reviewer in The Age remarks, ‘wherever his characters go, Ian Reid places us vividly there.’
Discharged from Dartmoor Prison in 1889, a black man breaks back into it soon afterwards. Interned in the same jail during World War I, a brooding conscientious objector seems to invite harsh punishment. On a present-day Australian university campus, a Muslim student is mysteriously murdered. The suspenseful action of A Thousand Tongues gradually reveals how these puzzling events are interlinked. Beautifully written, with unforgettable characters and resonant themes, the novel explores twists and turns of conscience, racial and sexual tensions, the limits of historical enquiry, and legacies of guilt.
Over to Ian…
2 things that inspired the book
An escapee who returns
Some years ago, browsing in a small museum in Devon, I picked up a booklet by a local historian. Over the Wall and Away recounted a number of stories about jail escapes, one of which I found particularly intriguing. It concerned a black man who, after many years of incarceration and maltreatment in the infamous Dartmoor Prison, gained his release in 1889—but then a few months later was apprehended while breaking back into the same place!
During the subsequent trial his ostensible motive for this astonishing action came to light, but I sensed a larger untold story between the lines, and it gradually began to take shape in my imagination as I wondered what life would have been like for a person such as this, a black man pushed to the margins of Victorian society. The abolition of slavery in England earlier in the 19th century had been a mixed blessing, because freedom left most British blacks in limbo, with scant opportunities for employment or social integration. I invented a character, Joshua Dunn, whose situation partly resembled that of the real-life person I’d read about…
A conscientious objector with a bad conscience
As I developed Joshua’s story speculatively, it converged with my growing interest in a different topic, something of historic importance that occurred a few decades later: the experience of pacifists during World War I. In Australia at that time the consequences for anyone opposed to military service could be unpleasant enough; future Prime Minister John Curtin was among those imprisoned briefly in 1916 as an anti-conscription agitator.
But because Australia remained the only WWI combatant nation whose soldiers were all volunteers, this country didn’t witness the extremely harsh treatment encountered by conscientious objectors elsewhere, especially in Britain. Reading about things that happened to English ‘conchies’ was an eye-opener that led me into extensive research and ultimately into the devising of a further strand in the plot of A Thousand Tongues. Pivotal in this is the character of Gavin Staines, uncompromising in his stance against the war but burdened by a secret prewar failure of conscience.
2 places connected with the book
Although much of my novel’s action takes place in earlier times and distant locations, there is also a framing story set in present-day Perth. A couple of scenes unfold in Kings Park, an extraordinary place where I often like to walk.
This imposing piece of landscape, perhaps the largest city park anywhere in the world, induces contemplation. Not only is it full of wonderfully diverse natural bushland, it’s also shaped in various ways by cultural values—and these, of course, are contestable values. One scene in my novel brings a pair of central characters to the State War Memorial, which has just been defaced by anti-war slogans; another scene features a political rally in Kings Park to support refugees. Looking out across the Swan River, someone attending the rally imagines countless generations of Nyoongar people standing on that same spot, long before the successive appearance of Dutch, French and English navigators who arrived in search of prosperity, not asylum.
Most first-time visitors to Dartmoor National Park probably think they know what to expect. Southwest England’s bleakest expanse of windswept moors, with stark, steep, stony tors looming over them. The spooky habitat of Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles. Fogs, bogs and dogs.
Yet this fascinating region can be full of surprises. Travelling through what I’d thought would be a grim wasteland of topographical clichés, I discovered wonderful variety, uncanny beauty, and glimpses of a long mystery-laden past stretching far back into prehistoric times.
Dartmoor also contains one of the world’s most notorious jails, built more than two centuries ago at Princetown on the high moors. Initially its dark granite walls enclosed thousands of prisoners of war from Napoleonic France and then from America. After the French and American wars finished in 1815, the prison stood unused until 1850 when it became a receptacle for ordinary convicts. In 1917 the convicts were dispersed to other jails so that this place could be converted to a detention centre for conscientious objectors. After the war, it reopened as a civilian prison.
These days, a tourist (and a historical novelist) can find much of interest in Princetown’s Prison Museum—which is where I began to think about the story that became A Thousand Tongues. I say ‘began’ because my first visit wasn’t my last.
2 favourite images from the book
It is 2015, and Tim Holmes, a young historian from Perth, makes a research trip to the Dartmoor region. (His investigation has a double purpose and he will discover more than he anticipates.) While staying there, he buys an ordnance map and follows an old walking track across the moorland to an ancient formation of standing stones.
Set on grassy plateau, the two large circles were nearly contiguous, almost forming a flattened figure of eight, an hourglass shape. Some of the great dark stones were perfectly rectangular, and the one nearest to him had such evenly placed spots of white lichen on its surface that it was like a chunky half-buried domino tile. The fanciful thought struck him that if the pieces forming each ring had been placed a little closer to one another, and then one of them fell, they would have gone on toppling, each one against the next in a series of mighty concussions, until all lay flat.
Sitting with his back to one of the giant dominoes, he ate what was left of his snack food, massaged his calves and fell into a sombre reverie.
Among the countless generations of men and women inhabiting this region in the past, some of his own forebears might once have walked where he had walked today. Five thousand years ago, ten thousand, what kind of landscape was it here? Perhaps the moors were less dismal in ancient times, more wooded? The immeasurable vista of prehistory stretched far back beyond his ken. This Dartmoor, this almost ageless place, seemed to mock the tiny circles of routine enquiry he’d been trained to follow as a historian.
Drowsily he watched shadows from the tall stones inch across the grass as the sun began its gradual decline over the moors. Time sank with it, not just the time of day but also the very notion of calculable progression itself, drawn down into the ancient land by a slow absorbing suction. As his mood sagged, every past or present human thing felt momentarily miniscule and pointless. You could lose your bearings here, map or no map. Misplace yourself.
Now to another image. It is 1869, and this is a reader’s first meeting with Joshua Dunn, member of a travelling circus troupe.
His black bunched hands had brought him here. For years they’d been proclaiming what kind of man he was, demanding caution and even something close to respect from those who might otherwise have treated him contemptuously. Around the Liverpool docks and streets a fist had the power to ward off trouble, to turn an object of disdain into a feared persuader. In fairground booths all over Lancashire he’d boxed his way to money—enough to live on without begging or thieving. And now, in this grand circus ring, surrounded by a clamorous crowd, he stood facing the legendary Jem Mace, bareknuckle champion of all England.
It was nothing like the kind of contest he’d dreamed about. Instead of being in the role of genuine challenger, eagerly measuring his prowess against the yardstick of Mace’s pre-eminence in the sport of fisticuffs, he was going through the charade of a fixed match.
‘Now listen here, Josh,’ he’d been told, ‘you’re a strong fighter, we know that, but it’s Jem Mace who brings the crowd to us. They want to see him win, and we’ve given him a quiet assurance he won’t be hurt. So put on a good show, eh lad? But pull your punches and let him look superior.’
Josh had to accept the arrangement with a shrug. Besides, he didn’t begrudge his opponent the crowd’s adulation. Mace had done well for himself, coming from a gypsy background, and good luck to him. But Josh, holding back his own natural aggression, felt his heart was a boiler full of steam, near to bursting.
The fight took its predetermined course. Although Josh jabbed away at the older man’s ribs, and once gave his ear a sharp clout just to let him know what he could do, he made sure none of the blows he landed was at full power. Mace, a clever boxer as famous for his dancing style as for his accurate hitting, kept moving around him quickly, smiling at him, confident and poised. When the exhibition had gone on long enough, Josh dropped his guard, let one of Mace’s punches through, and fell back as if stunned. There was an eruption of yelling and whistling and clapping. He picked himself up slowly. Mace waved to the crowd, walked over to him and shook his hand. ‘Well done, lad,’ he said with a wink.
What happens next to Joshua Dunn will set him on a path that eventually takes him to Dartmoor Prison, though his story doesn’t end there.