How have I read the hundreds (probably thousands?) of books that I have without encountering Christopher Koch before? I’ve been aware of the name on Miles Franklin lists (he won it twice) and I’d heard of the film The Year of Living Dangerously, which was based on his book. But I’ve never read any of his work up until now.
The Many-Coloured Land is part memoir/part travel narrative/part history. Koch grew up in Tasmania, but his awareness of his background centred mainly on his German heritage – reinforced, no doubt, by questions about his surname- and his Anglo-Irish background that had been thoroughly researched by a genealogy-obsessed uncle. Suppressed within his family history was another great-great grandmother, Margaret O’Meara, a convict from Tipperary. His two Irish great-great grandmothers arrived in Van Diemens Land within five years of each other, in very different circumstances- Margaret O’Meara and Jane Devereaux- one convict, one free; one Protestant, one Catholic; one a servant girl, the other the daughter of decayed aristocracy. The older Koch became, the more he was drawn to the story of Margaret O’Meara, and this book is, in part, the story of his pilgrimage to a ‘home’ land that he only really acknowledged in later life.
I put ‘home’ in inverted commas intentionally, because Koch is never anything but Tasmanian. The opening chapters of the book are located in Tasmania and chronicle his growing awareness of his family, and particularly Irish, heritage. It was in his description of Oyster Bay near Swansea, a childhood holiday spot, that won me over. I’ve sat on the dunes of the beach myself in a pink-infused sunset, with a warm breeze riffling over the grass at my back, the waves shushing onto the shore, and as I read this description I felt as if Koch had been leafing through my own memories:
Coswell (his holiday cottage) was set on gently-rising ground a few hundred yards from … a beach, looking out over white-gold paddocks and long, drystone walls to the blue expanse of Great Oyster Bay. The paddocks’ open spaces were dotted with a few long gum trees, and dark little Oyster Bay pines grew in the hollows. The beach was usually deserted, except for Coswell’s few guests. A creek flowed into the sea there, with a rickety jetty and diving board; an old wooden dinghy lay near the marram grass on a dune, and had lain there for as long as I could remember. At each end of the beach were great, smooth rocks of pinkish granite; beyond them, to the north, more white beaches could be seen, with a few tiny dots that were people, and occasional beached dinghies. Set with tall towers of spume, these long, far beaches curved off into mauve and white distances whose features grew tiny and illusory, faint as a distant music: a region beyond Swansea and the common world; perhaps beyond the real world together. (p. 48)
Koch visited Dublin as a young man in 1956 and remembered it as a dismal, grey, sad place. Returning in 2000 with his friend, the folk-singer Brian, he finds another Ireland. Ireland has changed- it was at the peak of its Celtic Tiger power of the new millennium- but so had he. He is unsettled by the brash, surface-level confidence of the new Ireland and it is only when he moves away from Dublin that he finds the layered Ireland that he seeks.
Nothing much happens in this book. They go from one B&B to another; they drink the night away in the fug of cigarette smoke with the beat of Irish folk music thrumming at their feet; they stand on coastlines; they survey landscapes. Koch finds the derelict Big House of his ancestor Jane Devereaux and is drawn to the story of the Young Irelanders who ended up as aristocratic convicts in VDL. Because all this research re-emerged in Koch’s fiction work Out of Ireland, which deals with the Young Irelanders, it reminded me a bit of Kate Grenville’s Searching for the Secret River, without the methodological angst.
There’s an unintended poignancy about this book, because we know, as Koch couldn’t when he wrote it, just how brittle and insubstantial that Celtic Tiger economy was to be. There’s another poignancy too, in my realization that this writer that I’ve never read passed away last year, and that all his deep inhalation of life, people and surroundings is at an end.
As a reader, I have little red flags that pop up when authors do particular things. I must confess that when the book started with family history, I inwardly groaned. Family history, while fascinating to the descendant, can be rather eye-glazing for other people, unless it’s contextualized and the author has convinced you that it’s going to be worth your while. Nor do I enjoy descriptions of food, and I don’t really care what people look like. This book violated all of these no-go zones at times. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed it. It’s a beautifully written plaiting-together of historic research, family history, travel narrative and memoir. And I’m going to track down his other books as well.
My rating: 8.5/10 (although I know that others haven’t been quite so fulsome in their praise)
Read because: it was a bookgroup choice with The Ladies Who Say Ooooh