Christina Baker Kline, a usually fine fiction writer, gives us a story that’s well-sketched but only marginally gripping with The Exiles, a novel about women convicts living in an Australian penal colony, and the aboriginal teenager struggling against white oppression who becomes a friend.
Evangeline Stokes, a governess who is sentenced to jail for larceny and the attempted murder of a fellow servant, is sent to Newgate Prison with little hope of reprieve or escape. The reasons for her crimes are (naturally) understandable – the servant she pushed had lied to her employer about why a valuable heirloom was on Evangeline’s dresser. The ring found in her possession was the property of her employer, but it had been given to her by the woman’s stepson, Cecil, who had impregnated Evangeline before absconding abroad.. It’s soon clear that Van Dieman’s Land, Australia, where female convicts have been sent to help tame this new world, will be her only chance to escape a much harsher fate.
In jail, Evangeline makes friends with the fiery and also-pregnant Olive, as well as the cynical pickpocket Hazel Ferguson, who has healing and midwifery skills that will make her valuable in their new home. Both women soon take the vulnerable Evangeline under their wings, and when cruel fate sweeps her overboard, they take charge of her infant. Soon Hazel alone is in charge of the girl they name Ruby, and must use her wits and her skills to keep her alive.
Mathinna, an aboriginal teenager christened Mary by the missionaries who are decimating her people, meets Hazel and Olive when they land in Hobart Town, Hazel becoming her nursemaid and teacher. Mathinna has been adopted to the custody of a noblewoman who treats aboriginal children like toys to be abused and then murdered and thrown away, by Sir John, a man who sees Mathinna’s ‘civilization’ as a point of pride. But her cleverness and her inability to blend into their way of life mark her out as someone different. All the while Mathinna never forgets her true family, her true way of life.
The Exiles suffers from one simple, spoiler-rich fact – we spend an awful lot of time with someone who ends up dying well before the half-way point, making her struggles feel both unimportant and, to a degree, for naught. Life may be simply Like That – unresolved, with ends dangling – but fiction abhors a vacuum. In fact, aside from Hazel and Olive, it doesn’t feel as if any of the characters actually get to do much evolving.
The worst of the lot happens to Mathinna, who feels less like a full character with a purpose, and more like a neon arrow pointing out the abuses that befall her. Those abuses need to be discussed, pointed out and examined in detail – but perhaps not in a fictional format such as this one. For this is one of those books where suffering builds character for a chosen few, and the rest must suffer until they die or become somewhat uncreative ghosts. And suffer. And suffer some more. Of course this was the lot in life of the women who came over on the boats, and by the last half of the book the plot picks up beautifully, but the endless drubbing isn’t exactly exciting, and it’s hard to invest in such a misery show. Life was shit for people who suffered this way – but to what end?
There are a grand total of three kind supporting characters – the rest are abusers, unfeeling parts of the system, or both. Again: life for a convict was hard. No one expects a picnic. But one is left feeling cheated because we’re so robbed of proper endings for multiple characters.
Overall, the book doesn’t reach Baker Kline’s normal heights, and instead falls just short of her usual watermark. But those who don’t mind a little misery business might like The Exiles better than I did.