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Review: The Exiles, by Christina Baker Kline
Morrow, 2020. 361 pp. $28

Australia, 1840. Mathinna, motherless eight-year-old daughter of the chief of the Lowreenne tribe, has been hiding from the white people who want to take her away. The governor of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and his wife wish to keep the girl in their household to see whether they may train her “savagery” out of her. Mathinna distrusts the whole enterprise.

Mathinna, a real historical figure, as rendered in Thomas Bock’s watercolor, 1842 (courtesy http://artyzm.com/e_obraz.php?id=414 via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Meanwhile, Evangeline Stokes, country vicar’s daughter and governess to a London family, has fallen afoul of her employers. A ruby ring belonging to the family is found in her possession, and in the ensuing outcry, she shoves another servant down the stairs. Never mind that her employer’s son gave Evangeline the ring, or that the child growing in her womb is his. Never mind, either, that the servant she pushed was conniving against her out of jealousy, or that the fall caused no physical injury. Larceny and attempted murder see Evangeline to Newgate Prison, from where she’s sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation to Australia.

That’s what happens when your presence embarrasses someone of wealth and social position.

The Exiles tells the story of Evangeline’s journey to Australia and her unlikely friendship with Hazel Ferguson, a young girl sentenced for stealing a silver spoon. Hazel’s streetwise where Evangeline’s an innocent. She also has marketable skills, a knowledge of midwifery and herbal remedies, learned from the mother who otherwise neglected her. Interwoven with the convict narrative is Mathinna’s life as a collected object in the governor’s house, a plaything in which her benefactors, as they believe themselves, may lose interest any moment.

Kline never lets her sympathy for her characters soften their lives; “no—and furthermore” thrives here. She also knows her ground thoroughly, re-creating the Australia of more than a century and a half ago as though it were the air her characters breathe. The ship, the prisons, the work the convicts do, the endemic cruelty and barbarity, the sanctimonious superiority from ordinary citizens and officials—all come through vividly. As a Newgate matron tells Evangeline, best not to count on anyone in life, man or woman. “The sooner you understand that, the better off you’ll be.”

Throughout, physical detail sets the scene:

There were some things she’d never get used to: the screams that spread like a contagion from one cell to the next. The vicious fistfights that broke out abruptly and ended with an inmate spitting blood or teeth. The lukewarm midday broth that floated with bony pig knuckles, snouts, bits of hooves, and hair. Moldy bread laced with maggots. Once the initial shock subsided, though, Evangeline found it surprisingly easy to endure most of the degradations and indignities of her new life: the brutish guards, the cockroaches and other parasites, the unavoidable filth, rats scurrying across the straw.

The moral and legal bankruptcy of colonialism emerges on every page, shown but not told. Kline’s too subtle an author to beat a drum; instead, she lets you hear the music for yourself, and a sorry tune it is. The counterpoint comes from the governor’s mansion, where Mathinna learns to speak French and wear fine dresses. But she’s tolerated—barely—if, and only if, she reflects the image her hosts demand. Any hint of her true identity must be erased. This represents the other side of the system that populates Australia with accused criminals, labeled savages too, though they have white skins.

The two narratives, convict and indigenous child, reveal a complex fabric of prejudices, attitudes, assumptions, determination and energy that helps build a nation. But the convicts have one advantage, an inherent paradox that gives them something to hope for. The servitude that banishes them from England, though brutal and unjust, allows them scope to make something of themselves, what they probably couldn’t have done in their homeland.

No guarantees, mind; they must survive their sentences, swallow their individuality rather than express it, see the correct opportunity should it arrive, and seize it. But Mathinna and her people, as with all the other subdued tribes, don’t even have that chance.

Beautifully written, utterly gripping, The Exiles makes a compelling story from an author unafraid to hurt her characters, a boldness I admire. My only quibble with this otherwise excellent novel is to ask where Mathinna’s narrative fits in, other than thematically, historical truth notwithstanding. I like her portion for itself, for the writing is as clear and persuasive as the rest, and Kline makes the governor, his wife, and daughter three-dimensional, flawed people instead of shapeless villains. Even so, if you remove Mathinna, the plot doesn’t change an inch, which made me question her role and wonder why it wasn’t larger than it is.

Still, that objection doesn’t diminish The Exiles, a superb novel well worth your time.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.