By Karen Crawshaw
1921. A baby born too soon in the wrong house, by a wrong deed, is laid to violent rest. Swaddled by the earth, it sees and hears all things above. Its mother, the only person to see it alive, is Australia’s first female bushranger, Jessie Hickman.
The Burial is a debut Australian novel that took Courtney Collins 10 years to write. It is about a quest for freedom, based on the life and times of Jessie Hickman. Jessie was 12 when her mother sold her to a circus. She became a self-sufficient survivor, a child circus performer, a buck jumping champion, a skilled horse rustler, a cattle thief, convict, murderer and fugitive.
When Courtney Collins began the book, Jessie Hickman was its logical narrator. Courtney says she had a fascination for bushrangers who were “invariably all blokes”. She asked herself why we didn’t know about Jessica Hickman and she imagined what it was like to feel a sense of aloneness in an incredible Australian landscape. It stirred her to start scraping the layers off Jessie’s story.
Jessie was a woman of action and few words and Courtney strained to hear her. She saw her every day, larger than life. A framed prison image hung above her desk. As Jessie gazed, unblinking, over the growing novel, Courtney grew to know her: the strength and the wildness, the resilience and refusal to be victimised and shaped by others. However, Jessie as narrator was not working and Courtney decided to start again.
The voice of the child came to Courtney when she was lying on the grass in a park, listening to a friend. Her mind drifted to what might lie beneath her. She thought, if the earth could speak, whose story would it tell? It was a tingling moment. The Burial’s voice was born, and chapter one began.
The narrative device gave Courtney the opportunity to explore tangents of herself that she wouldn’t explore in life. “I think I have an affinity with all the characters to a degree. Part of it comes from empathy. People who know me and have read the book interpret different things about it and I say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’.” With exception of Jessie, the characters were not influenced by, or aware of, the narrator. The prose is not yoked to emotion but it is there, often in what is not said. The child’s voice is grounded in its burial.
Courtney Collins grew up in the Hunter Valley, surrounded by the Widden Ranges, the same area Jessie roamed in the early 20th century. She now lives on a 70 acre property on the Goulburn River in the Victorian countryside. It is a place she had been visiting for seven years, before moving there permanently two years ago.
In the novel, Jessie tears across the countryside on her beloved horse Houdini, whose hooves double-drum and blur the earth. The child tracks its mother’s escape across the land with a sweet song of longing. “The kid is very forgiving of the mother, wishing her well, wanting the best for her, wanting to know her so deeply,” Courtney says.
She says she wanted the child’s voice to have a poetic, lyrical quality. “That’s something I couldn’t necessarily just spit out,” she says.
The process of writing The Burial was about learning how to write fiction and also learning how to live as a writer. “Part of my journey was to have a sideline career for a long time but it means you have less time to write. It takes so much time, the way I write. Maybe that’s because I like to, need to, feel it deeply.”
She says she wanted the book to have pace, as it is a story of pursuit. She needed it to have energy to help people turn the page. She says she loves “language and story, myth and character and fiction especially. That’s where I like to play. I also really like the things that go with it – the journals, and the desk, pens. I like the things that support the writing.”