October 2006

Rachel J. K. Grace

nonfiction

In Tasmania by Nicholas Shakespeare

In Tasmania is difficult to categorize. It is part history, part memoir, part travelogue, and part something-else-I-cannot-put-my-finger-on. Due to this orgy of genres, it is also difficult to summarize. Most book reviews offer some kind of summary, but after reading this book and reflecting on it (somewhat bitterly, I admit), I am not sure what this book is about. What is Shakespeare’s point? What does he hope to accomplish with this book? Why was this book published?

Not that the book was all bad. Though Shakespeare’s dialogue writing can be a bit choppy at times, he knows how to craft a sentence. And he certainly did some extensive (though perhaps not always thorough) research. His character sketches of people he encounters during his travels and research are engaging. It is just that most of this book seems to be an amalgamation of essays, some of which are connected to the general topic of Tasmania by only the thinnest thread.

Shakespeare starts out just fine by describing the geography of Tasmania and highlighting some bits of the land’s history. It, like mainland Australia, was inhabited by Aborigines and then convicts. It is a beautiful, largely unspoiled island with the world’s purest air. It is remote. Shakespeare knew this when he decided to move there, but he did not know that one ancestor of his had made that same decision many years before.

Shakespeare is fascinated with Anthony Fenn Kemp, his great-great-great-great-uncle, in a way that many people are fascinated with their mysterious ancestors. Shakespeare’s challenge is to make Kemp as interesting for his readers, and in this he fails. If Kemp were a mere backdrop or launching point for the big picture story of Tasmania, it would not be much of a problem. As it is, Kemp is often at the foreground and annoyingly so. His economic and social contributions to Tasmania had long-lasting effects, surely, but Shakespeare could have conveyed that by focusing on Tasmania and not Kemp. Kemp’s rabble rousing made him stand out in his day, but these days rabble-rousers are a dime a dozen.

Shakespeare wants to share the history of Tasmania with his readers while also remaining focused on Kemp. Perhaps because Shakespeare does not know how to write about history; he often gets caught up in the unimportant -- and uninteresting -- details of Kemp’s life. If I were to meet Shakespeare at a cookout, I (with a veggie burger in one hand and a beer in the other) would be interested to hear about Kemp during a 15-20 minute conversation. Unfortunately, I had to read about Kemp for over 100 pages. That is roughly equivalent to six cookout hours.

Shakespeare also shares tales of cannibalism, Merle Oberon, and people who died of broken hearts (a.k.a. heart failure). Fortunately, though, there is at least one bright spot in this otherwise confounding book. Shakespeare shines in Part II (of IV), titled “Black Lines.” I wonder what this book would have been like had Shakespeare devoted the entire book to the Aborigines, the subject of Part II. It could have been a good book, perhaps even a great one. But in trying to accomplish too much with In Tasmania, Shakespeare fails his readers. And, I suspect, his editors failed him.

In Tasmania by Nicholas Shakespeare
The Overlook Press
ISBN 1585677205
356 pages