Ryan O’Neill is a Scottish writer now resident in Australia. His previous book, Their Brilliant Careers (which I haven’t got around to yet), was a set of ‘biographies’ of fictitious Australian writers. The Drover’s Wives also plays around with Australian literary history: inspired by Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, O’Neill has reinterpreted a classic Australian short story – ‘The Drover’s Wife’ by Henry Lawson – in 101 different ways (two more in the UK edition than the Australian original).
First of all, if you don’t know the source story (as I didn’t previously), it doesn’t matter. Lawson’s 1892 original is reprinted at the front of O’Neill’s book (you can also read it here). It’s the story of an (unnamed) woman living with her children in a remote house in the Bush. Her husband has been away with his sheep for six months. On the day of the story, a snake has hidden under the house. The woman stays up all night, thinking back over her married life and more recent times, waiting for the snake to re-emerge.
The entries in The Drover’s Wives cover a bewildering range of styles and forms. Part of the fun (and this book is a lot of fun to read) lies in not knowing what’s coming up next, but just to give a few chapter titles: ‘Hemingwayesque’, ‘A Real Estate Advertisement’, ‘A 1980s Computer Game’, ‘Wordsearch’ – even a chart of paint swatches on the back cover.
Perhaps it doesn’t do to get too analytical here. The Drover’s Wives effectively lampoons its own criticism, with spoof reviews and essays, and a meandering ‘Question Asked by an Audience Member at a Writers’ Festival’ (“I suppose this is more of a comment than a question”). But I do appreciate how O’Neill brings out different themes in Lawson’s story, and looks at it from different viewpoints – one entry, ‘Biographical’, serves to remind that the story is actually covering quite a short, not necessarily significant, part of its protagonist’s life.
The mood also changes. I was particularly touched by the ‘Backwards’ chapter, which not only retells the story in reverse, but also flips around cause and effect, so that good impossibly comes from bad (“Fond memories she had of the floods receding and repairing the house and dam, and the bushfire that had come and turned all the charred grass green again”). For all the variety of styles, O’Neill often keeps Lawson’s closing image of “sickly daylight” breaking over the bush; after a while, this has an almost incantatory feel when it comes around again.
In short, The Drover’s Wives is highly enjoyable, constantly surprising, and well worth your time.
Lightning Books, the publisher, are currently offering a free copy of Their Brilliant Careers if you order The Drover’s Wives from their website. See Scott Pack’s comment on this post for details.
The Drover’s Wives (2019) by Ryan O’Neill, Lightning Books, 264 pages, paperback.