The Conversations at Curlow Creek
by David Malouf
Pantheon Books, 233 pp., $23.00
David Malouf’s new novel is based on an event that occurred in New South Wales in 1827. An escaped Irish convict turned bushranger has been captured and condemned to die at dawn. Daniel Carney is the last of a gang. The rest have been killed or have disappeared. Three soldiers guard him-two nineteen-year-old Irish peasant boys called Garrety and Langhurst, and an older man called Kersey. A young officer is sent by the Governor to oversee the execution. This is Michael Adair, the central figure in the novel. He spends Carney’s last night with him in the hut where he lies in chains. The “Conversations” of the title are between these two; and also between Adair and the soldiers, whom he joins from time to time by their campfire. Not unnaturally, under the circumstances, they talk about death, crime, and punishment; and about their past lives-all of them grew up in Ireland. The young men joke and squabble and tell ghost stories. Garrety’s story has one of the most disturbingly persuasive apparitions in it that I have ever come across: “I felt,” he says “…like he [the ghost] was the one seeing me, rather than the other way round.”
Adair has been a professional soldier since his late teens. He is an orphan, brought up slightly above his station in life by a horsey lady and her alcoholic husband in a rundown country house in County Galway. The lady-Adair calls her Mama Aimée-has lost a large number of babies, and she loves Adair dearly as her son. When he is four, she has another child, Fergus. Amazingly, the boy survives. But Mama Aimée goes on loving Michael best. In due course the boys are sent to be educated with the daughter of the local grandee, who is a cultivated man, a classical scholar steeped in the philosophy and ideals of the Enlightenment, which he tries to pass on to the next generation. The clever, high-spirited daughter, Virgilia, is a few weeks older than Adair, and her father intends to give her a boy’s education in the classics.
The three children grow up inseparable. Both Michael and Virgilia dote on Fergus, and so does everyone else, from the servants, for whom he is a “fairy child,” to the local young ladies when the time comes for Mama Aimée to force the two boys to dress up and go to dances in the big houses around. Adair realizes that he loves Virgilia, but that she loves Fergus. He watches her watching Fergus asleep in a meadow, “staring with a dreamlike fixity at the muscles of Fergus’s throat, which tensed, went lax, then tensed again, as with his limbs flung out and his bare chest lightly heaving, he slept. Her lips were parted. Her teeth glistened. She looked, Adair thought, as if she were drugged. Desire, that is what he saw.”
Adair has already made up his mind to become independent and to earn his living as a …