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December 23, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

A Forger’s Tale by Rod Howard

Published December/January 2011 at ArtsHub

To buy the book, click through to Arcade Publications here.

A Forger’s Tale is a pocket-friendly book covering the life of Australia’s first novelist, Henry Savery, and set between 1791 and 1842. Naturally, our first novelist was a convict, but sailed through his transportation with gentle treatment from authorities and a cushy assignment within government administration. Rod Howard’s writing is a tad stilted and academic to suit what is an undecided approach to creative non-fiction, slipping between a narrative approach and an academic style better suited to an essay.

The story itself seems to lack the kind of emotional gravitas that compels you to keep reading. Ironically, a lack of drama is not the book’s weakness; Savery’s story will just about punch you in the face with drama if you summarise the most poignant moments. But when it is told in a format that is reduced to imagined conversations about finance and legal matters, and dwells too heavily on business rather than emotion, it feels as though the reader loses a tangible connection with the gullible and often stupid anti-hero.

Savery is an empathetic character, for sure, regardless of his terrible decision-making and the abundance of fortune his position in British society offered him in life. Happily married and in charge of a relatively successful business in Britain, a naive decision to forge financial documents sends Savery to Van Diemen’s Land. Not only does Savery get a cushy ride down there, avoiding the terrible conditions suffered by most convicts on transportation ships, he’s barely even aware of his own elevation and special treatment. What follows is the slow degradation of a family unit, suicide dramas, criminality and abuses of power in newly established Tasmania, where printing presses were growing in influence and Savery became both an unwitting and a knowing pawn in the power plays between government and fourth estate. After all this, Savery’s autobiographical novel, Quintus Servinton, does not seem to have retained much prominence in Australian history other than as a marker on Australia’s advance into the literary world.

A Forger’s Tale is ultimately a tale of destruction set in one of the most unforgiving terrains of all – newly colonised Tasmania, where there is little room for naiveté and plenty of opportunity for the powerful to continue being powerful. While the indecisive tone of the work tends to disrupt narrative focus, A Forger’s Tale is a carefully researched character study of a man who is, in many ways, an archetypal Australian.


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