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South of Darkness by John Marsden
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South of Darkness

by John Marsden

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12 yr old Barnaby fletch tells his story of life as an abandoned youth on the streets of London in the 1700s to his transport to Australia as a child convict on the third fleet., and his early times in the fledgeling colony.
While factually correct, I had trouble reconciling the "voice" and language to the uneducated . boy telling his tale. ( )
  TheWasp | Jan 20, 2015 |
When I started this book, Marsden’s first for adults, I couldn’t help feeling it was still more one for teenagers, the narrator making this an account of his boyhood using what seemed to me very much like the sort of middle-class grammar that is favoured today rather than the more dubious grammar of a man abandoned as a child to live on the streets of London in the nineteenth century. So Marsden writes: ‘such incidents were common enough for we children’ (instead of ‘us children’) and ‘the man whom I believe saved my life’ (rather than ‘who, I believe, saved my life’). As Kingsnorth said defending the quasi Old English that he used in ‘The Wake’, giving modern day English to these characters from a different era would be akin to giving them cappuccinos and an iPad, and in giving his narrator these current grammatical affectations, Marsden loses credibility.

I wasn’t many pages into this book when I realised that Marsden’s main interest seemed to be recreating London in the late 1700s. There was just too much extraneous detail if Marsden’s aim had been more to do with theme or characterisation. To confirm my suspicions, I turned to the end of the book and, sure enough, came across both Marsden’s boast(?) that the historical details are accurate and a page and a half of the historical sources that he had used. I was a little surprised, though, to find no mention of Dickens as it seemed to me that Marsden was influenced by him too, right down to the sort of grim humour you find at the start of ‘Great Expectations’ where the impecunious and unfortunate Pip gets the sort of treatment later meted out by Marsden to Barnaby. So, after Mr Weekes has hit Barnaby on one side of the head, a moment or two later we find Mr Weekes ‘establishing a policy of equilibrium by slapping me now on the other side of my head’.

So, basically Marsden’s aim in this novel was, I think, to give a description of what it was like to live in London and NSW at this time. He supplies copious information he has gleaned from elsewhere such his description of the different names for convict workers: ‘and so the malingerers called the hard workers “nightingales”, because they sang too sweetly to the authorities, or, at other times, “catch-farts”, a term used in England for a foot boy. It seemed this vulgar term originated from the practice of a foot boy following exceedingly closely behind his master’. It’s this sort of educating the reader that turns me off this book and when I look for a theme I either get the sort of facile one Marsden/Barnaby offers when he sees the pleasure native children get from their stick babies and compares them with ‘the spoilt little rich girls of London, wheeling their elaborately dressed, exquisitely made perambulators along the streets’ or continual references to the story of Job and the trials of his life. This leads me to realise Marsden wanted a Christian overlay to his tale, bluntly overt as he makes it at the end.

Now that I’ve read the whole book, I wonder if he did really intend it to be for adults or for his usual audience. I don’t see it as much different from his ‘Tomorrow when the war began’ series where teenagers would discuss their romantic attachments during the day and then attack or kill the invaders at night. The rather unlikely nature of that series is echoed in this one with one coincidence after another stretching the reader’s credulity – and at the end I see Marsden is setting himself up to write a sequel – not one I’ll be reading. ( )
  evening | Jan 5, 2015 |
John Marsden is best known for ‘The Tomorrow Series’ though he has written and published at least a dozen more middle grade to young adult novels as well as a handful of non fiction works.

“Having been asked by the Rvd Mr Johnson to jot down a few notes about my upbringing and the manner of my arrival in the colony, I will attempt to do so, but I should say at the outset that I have little of interest to relate. I have not contributed much worth to the world, as will no doubt become obvious in the pages that follow…”

South of Darkness is Marsden’s first novel for adults and features a young man by the name of Barnaby Fletch. It begins in late 18th century London where Fletch is struggling to survive on the streets of ‘Hell’. Orphaned at the tender age of 5, or thereabouts, he sleeps under bridges, thieving food to survive, his only friend another street rat named Austin. Though he is a recipient of some kindness by a church priest and later a family who fishes him half drowned out of the Thames, Barnaby is a hapless sort of fellow who often finds himself in dire straits and on one occasion, aged about 12, he sees no way out of a terrible situation other than to get himself transported to New South Wales to start a new life in the land that promises space and sunshine.

I have to be honest and admit that though I enjoyed Barnaby’s adventures, my experience of the narrative was not unlike that of reading an extended account from a school textbook as part of a history lesson. South of Darkness is related in the first person past tense by the aforementioned Barnaby Fletch, with not much in the way of dialogue and a tendency to tell rather than show.

I have no doubt that the historical details of Barnaby’s experiences are authentic, though his life is fictional. Marsden deftly evokes the grim streets of London, the bobbing transport ship, and the landscape of the fledgling Australian colony. I’m fairly familiar with the experiences of British convicts from an obsession with the era when I was in my mid teens but Barnaby’s interactions with the Australian ‘Indians’ (indigenous) are not something I had read about before.

South of Darkness is a tale of survival, adventure, fortitude and hope. Though I feel it lacks some excitement it is still a fascinating account of the era and a young boys life. I assume there will be more to come from Marsden as the end of South of Darkness leaves room for a continuation of Barnaby Fletch’s tale through adolescence and beyond. ( )
  shelleyraec | Nov 25, 2014 |
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To Kris, with memories of those quiet days in that vast room, in the beautiful stillness of winter...
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Having been asked by the Revd Mr Johnson to jot down a few notes about my upbringing and the manner of my arrival in the colony, I will attempt to do so, but I should say at the outset that I have little of interest to relate.
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Book description
Thirteen-year-old Barnaby Fletch is a bag-and-bones orphan in London in the late 1700s.

Barnaby lives on his wits and ill-gotten gains, on streets seething with the press of the throng and shadowed by sinister figures. Life is a precarious business.

When he hears of a paradise on the other side of the world- a place called Botany Bay - he decides to commit a crime and get himself transported to a new life, a better life.

To succeed, he must survive the trials of Newgate Prison, the stinking hull of a prison ship and the unknown terrors of a journey across the world.

And Botany Bay is far from the paradise Barnaby has imagined. When his past and present suddenly collide, he is soon fleeing for his life - once again.

A riveting story of courage, hope and extraordinary adventure.
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Thirteen-year-old Barnaby Fletch is a bag-and-bones orphan in London in the late 1700s. Barnaby lives on his wits and ill-gotten gains, on streets seething with the press of the throng and shadowed by sinister figures. Life is a precarious business. When he hears of a paradise on the other side of the world- a place called Botany Bay - he decides to commit a crime and get himself transported to a new life, a better life. To succeed, he must survive the trials of Newgate Prison, the stinking hull of a prison ship and the unknown terrors of a journey across the world. And Botany Bay is far from the paradise Barnaby has imagined. When his past and present suddenly collide, he is soon fleeing for his life - once again. A riveting story of courage, hope and extraordinary adventure.… (more)

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