Purgatory by Rosetta Allan (Penguin Books NZ, 2014), 328 pp., $30
I was halfway through reading Rosetta Allan’s novel Purgatory when I googled ‘the Otahuhu murders of 1865’ upon which her storyline is based. The first thing I found was an article from the Daily Southern Cross newspaper of 25 December 1865, reporting that ‘a verdict of guilty’ was ‘returned against James Stack …’ The article reports at length about the discovery of the bodies of three of the four members of the Finnegan family (not the youngest boy John) in the garden of their house in Otahuhu. Then I found James Stack, murderer, listed on Murderpedia. So what had so far been a ‘whodunnit’ (for me) became a story about the unfortunate demise of a man.
Purgatory opens with one of the best first paragraphs I’ve read in ages:
‘You don’t want to be digging there,’ Ma says like he can hear her. No one can hear her, just us boys. We’re the dead Finnegans – Ma, Thomas, Ben and me.
‘Me’ is young John Finnegan, whose soul remains in the ‘purgatory’ of his backyard for four years longer than the rest of his murdered family because his body has not yet been found. It is neat, though surely unfair, that aggrieved souls remain lurking around until their bodies are given a proper burial, but in Purgatory the idea provides an essential layer of narrative allowing the Irish Catholic ‘purgatory’ to interweave with concepts of Māori spirituality. The Māori point of view is given access via the novelist’s invented character Abel, a soldier friend of James’s who goes absent-without-leave from the militia. Abel partners up with a Māori girl and takes the name ‘Wiremu’. Abel/Wiremu is eventually killed by a member of the girl’s family and his free spirit communes, briefly, with John Finnegan’s captive spirit in the garden in Otahuhu.
Don’t know why I’m stuck to this bit of land. Wiremu says my spirit is connected to it. That’s what I am he says, a spirit. Ma said our bodies rise from the ground after God calls us. I don’t understand that. I look up and imagine the stars as thousands of lost children carrying lanterns in the moonlight, looking for their bodies. We are all children of the moon – that’s what Wiremu says. I think he’s right.
The Abel/Wiremu character succinctly extends Purgatory’s pervasive and obsessive theme of ownership, and through his actions personifies the paradoxes of war.
James Stack and John Finnegan are the two ‘point of view’ characters. The novel switches between them, with the bulk of the novel given to James’s story. All other characters remain fairly flat, providing context and foil – and because we don’t get to know these secondary characters, their deaths are the tragedies of any cruel and premature death, such as might be seen on TV or read about in a newspaper.
Here’s the back-story, in a nutshell:
James and his fourteen-year-old sister Aileen are walking in Dublin one day in 1852 when she is abducted and taken into custody. In court, James hears that she has been accused of stealing a silk handkerchief, and for this she is to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land in South Australia (Tasmania). There, she will be imprisoned in the workhouse where her fine skills of lacemaking will be exploited. James, who dearly loves Aileen, vows to follow her, so he inveigles his way into the militia and onto The Witch, a ship headed for Australia. He is comforted and regularly reminded of his sister along the way by a lace collar, which Aileen tore from her dress and thrust into his hand as she was taken from court.
On board The Witch James suffers a terrible whipping that nearly kills him. He also meets his life-long friend, Abel. But during this voyage I began to wonder who James really was/is and what makes him tick, because there isn’t a whole lot of exploration of his character thus far. This was when I read that newspaper article and began to wonder if Allan might be keeping James Stack at arm’s length because of the nature of his crimes.
The idea and memory of Aileen are what keep James going, until he eventually meets Mary-Jane Finnegan in New Zealand – after a leap forward of ten years (which caused me a brief ‘whoa, hang on’, moment). James’s battalion has been sent to New Zealand to fight the land wars. Eventually, Mary-Jane falls ill with pneumonia. James steals a new pair of boots for her and is caught and put in Mt Eden prison, with a two-year sentence.
Abel (now Wiremu) comes to the rescue by brokering a deal with prison authorities: they need a hangman and Abel tells them that James has the necessary skills (learnt for no particular reason on board The Witch). James is offered immediate release if he will hang two murderers. This transpires and James goes back to Mary-Jane’s family home in Otahuhu, at which point he appears to be a man on a mission, determined and focused, but not heartless:
The night was cold, the sky crisp with stars as clear and beautiful as a cathedral ceiling, the moon’s brilliance crowning the freedom of the night, lighting the path to Otahuhu. James walked without stopping, hands in pockets, the fabric of Mary-Jane’s night dress and Aileen’s woollen lace encased in one hand, ten pounds in the other.
But when he gets to the family home in Otahuhu, Mary-Jane is dead. James feels defeated, and it all goes rapidly down hill for James and the Finnegans from there.
Rosetta Allan says in her acknowledgements that Purgatory is a work of fiction based on fact:
Although I have tried to be as accurate as I can, some of the details have been deliberately changed for the sake of the story.
As well as a good story, this novel contains some interesting historical touchstones, such as a section set during a Waikato land war. This section, beginning on page 185, outlines a carefully depicted battle scene and contains some well-researched details about methods of warfare between colonial Pākehā and Māori. The battle narration depicts the warring as an horrendous loss of lives on both sides: slaughter for the sole purpose of acquiring land and power. The question of whether ‘ownership’ can occur by staking a claim through sheer brute force on a piece of land, or on a house, or indeed on a woman, is a theme that threads throughout Purgatory. In fact, the premise of the book is essentially that tragedy is imminent when the desire for ownership loses all sense of proportion.
James Stack, like many an immigrant to New Zealand, was eager to acquire his own piece of land, and this becomes a desperation that leads right up to the climactic incident at the end where he wages a one-sided war on his dead wife’s family ostensibly to claim their property. There are moments where I wondered whether the author might be making ‘excuses’ for Stack, damned as he was by a childhood with an angry mother and a father who murdered ‘wanderers’ back in Ireland:
He spoke through his teeth, holding back the fury that was his inheritance from his mother … (p. 307)
He remembered how he [his father] hit the wanderers on the side of the head, and they’d splatter … (p. 310)
James’s capacity for murder grows as the narrative unfolds; his wildly oscillating morality is largely grounded in the ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ school of thought. While fighting with Cathleen Finnegan to get her to sign the deed that will name him as co-owner of her cottage, he hears his father’s voice reminding him about the gypsies: ‘It’s them or us, boyo.’ This flashback helps him complete the sinister act he has started.
James’s actions are never excused in Purgatory, however. As the plot progresses, he becomes increasingly self-serving and taciturn beyond the effect of any grim parental legacy. The murder of John Finnegan is the most horrific act James commits, not because we get to know John a bit in his capacity as the narrator in his sections, but because Allan shows him to be James Stack’s second favourite Finnegan (after Mary-Jane), and also, and perhaps particularly, because John was only a young boy. That a man could murder a child he was fond of seems unlikely, and so unnatural, that it made me wonder how fond, if at all, the real James Stack was, not withstanding his sudden need for self-preservation (‘It’s them or us, boyo’).
James eventually reminds me of Raskolnikov (in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment), complete with the inevitable downward spiral and fierce internal battle between good and evil that errs on the side of ‘evil’. The main difference between Raskolnikov and James is that Dostoyevsky’s protagonist premeditated his dastardly acts while James, arguably, acts in the heat of the moment – but both are propelled by something more powerful than their conscience.
James also reminds me of Meursault (in Camus’ L’Etranger) when he numbly acts out various terrible deeds, but some of James’s numbness might be caused by the novelist’s summary approach to delineating this character; she perhaps leaves aspects blank due to a desire for ‘accuracy’ while not wanting to imbue James with too much humanity. But in the case of each of these murderers the reader is left wondering how and why each man could do what he did. In Purgatory, the concept of morality seems tied up with a mutilated Catholicism; James experiences guilt, but is backed into a corner by the momentum of his own greed and an angry sense of entitlement.
Purgatory is wholly successful in its creative rendering of history, providing the sensitive colouring-in of ‘missing details’ and adding to the story’s atmosphere while not changing or demeaning the facts. Rosetta Allan combines the interwoven narrative strands of John and James compellingly well. Each point of view is moreish and well told in language that is easy to read, while detailing the highly engaging, precarious, hand-to-mouth existence of the working class in colonial New Zealand.
It’s interesting to note how narratives change in meaning when you suddenly get more information (in this case, consulting the 1865 newspaper article and so on), but Rosetta Allan’s highly entertaining novel ‘works’, whether the facts of the case are fully known or not. It is an impressive debut.
TASHA HAINES is a Wellington-based writer with a background in fine arts (MFA from Elam at Auckland University). She was an essay contributor to the book Robert Ellis, published by Ron Sang Publications in 2014, and is currently working on her PhD (Deakin University, Melbourne) in modernist literary fiction.