K.M. Kruimink’s influences are clear: Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Moby Dick.
Like The Luminaries, A Treacherous Country is a story of an outsider venturing into the wilds of the colonies on a rather hare-brained quest (a touch of Don Quixote here, too) and meeting all kinds of eccentric locals. Then there is an extraordinary account of a whale hunt, and there is a backstory about the hero’s family back in England. Whether all this comes together into a satisfying whole is an open question. I didn’t find that it held me consistently, but I take my hat off to Kruimink’s bravado and the roguish dash and humour of her writing.
The central figure Gabriel Fox is the disappointing son of a martinet father, a namby-pamby figure who is on a quest to win the girl he loves by carrying out an errand for her grandmother. It’s clear to us, but not to him, that the girl thinks Gabriel is a fool and will never accept him. The grandmother sends him to Tasmania to find a long-lost relative who was transported there forty years ago, and to deliver her a letter. Things are complicated by the fact that as soon as he arrives he’s swindled and robbed, and landed with a pair of harpoons he won in a card game. Hoping to raise some money by selling them, he sets off on a journey to a distant whaling station. None of this has anything to do with the quest for Maryanne Maginn.
For I had discovered, no one wished to buy American harpoons, and they are jolly cumbersome. Not only this, but they had also served to distract me from my great Purpose there in the colonies.
To look at me, the idle observer would be forgiven for not immediately divining that I was a man with a Grave Mission, as I went along on my stupid horse with my hideous Contraptions of harpoons. And yet it was so.
Things go full Moby Dick when Gabriel arrives at the whaling settlement and gets involved in a whale hunt. There are a lot of strongly-drawn characters here, but it seemed to me there were too many personal stories jostling for attention. Added to this is the strange story of Gabriel’s mother back in England. She’s been locked in the attic by his father because she speaks her mind too forthrightly. There’s a whole novel in that, shouting for attention, but it can’t get that sort of attention in a novel that seems to be unsure where exactly it’s going.
K. M. Kruimink won the Vogel Prize, Australia’s most prestigious award for an unpublished manuscript by a writer under the age of thirty, for this book, and I wouldn’t quarrel with that, just because it’s such an ambitious and daring piece of work. She’s like a frisky young horse with lots of potential who just needs to settle into her stride.