Cover of The Slow Death of Patrick O'Reilly
The Slow Death of Patrick OReilly
Phil Leask

an urban legend fleshed with the whispers of generations
Go and buy
The Slow Death of Patrick O’Reilly right now
Andrew Harper, Togatus 
months after I have finished it, I can feel its myths and mythic perspectives roaming in my brain
Terry Monagle, Táin

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Book Description

Patrick O’Reilly, it seems, has roamed the Tasmanian forests for 150 years. He knew Lake Pedder before it was flooded for hydro-electricity. A scourge of the local community, he has raided farms and apple orchards. But is he involved with a lost child? And with Bernard Laurent, a French sailor who has jumped ship? Bernard, having started an affair with a farmer’s wife, is sheltered by a collector of historical documents. She gives him a journal of an earlier Frenchman, a deserter from Nicolas Baudin’s 1802 naval expedition. The journal tells an almost parallel story of tenderness and brutality. Bernard’s translation leads to a startling and violent revelation.

Set across two centuries, Phil Leask’s compelling new novel is told with effortless ease.

Leask’s characters are multi-layered. They are rich with personal histories and messy emotional baggage, which is something of a rarity in recent Australian literature.
Melissa Hart, Australian Book Review

Phil Leask is just on the money... he is an orginal and new voice.
Delia Falconer.

ISBN 1876044365
Published 2001
305 pgs
The Slow Death of Patrick O’Reilly book sample

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33 Chapters

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The Question of Identity
The Slow Death of Patrick O’Reilly
Laurie Clancy
Overland, No. 169, Summer 2002

Phil Leask comes with the recommendation of no less distinguished a writer and reviewer than Delia Falconer. All the more disappointing, then, that this second novel fails to live up to expectations. It is the story of the eponymous O’Reilly, who lives in the hills of Tasmania in 1952, a source of constant discussion and conjecture to the citizens of the tiny local town, some of them believing he is over a century old and most of them, for reasons which are unclear, deeply hostile to him, regarding him as a troublemaker.

The opening sentence of each of the first four chapters introduces us to one of the protagonists: O’Reilly, the young girl Cathy Connolly who has seen him, the Frenchman Bernard Laurent who has deserted ship, and Anna McCluskey, who has just got married. Later we meet the other important character, an old lady named Elizabeth Morgan, who is more or less in love with O’Reilly.

Elizabeth has bought some journals in Hobart and Leask juxtaposes one of these, the story of a French sailor Clement Hebert at the beginning of the nineteenth century, against the contemporary narrative. Hebert, like Bernard, is a deserter who spends a virtual lifetime alone in the Bush, writing his journals with an ink he has made out of ‘berries and some sort of earth or clay’ and carrying paper on his back that somehow lasts thirty years. Perhaps we can say of him also, as O’Reilly says of Bernard, that he ‘carried his suffering with him like some Biblical mark upon his forehead’. For over thirty years Hebert, like Paddy, wanders alone in the bush except for one incident in which he fathers a child. When we find out the child’s identity it is both predictable and, like much in this book, implausible.

The prose is filled with quasi-poetic meditations:

...and sometimes when he came down into the towns or did odd jobs on the farms there would be a woman waiting for him, who would turn and look at him and reach out to him with wel¬coming arms, and what they did together then, on an empty bed or behind the garden shed, was what they always did, men and women everywhere, the same but different every time...

This is fairly typical of a novel which seems to be making attempts at immense but obscure significance.

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Andrew Harper
Togatus, 2002

Phil Leask isn’t that well known an author on the Aussie writing scene but if this, his second crack at the task of creating a novel, is anything to go by, he really should be. As a reader, I want a style that seduces me keep on reading, but doesn’t patronise me with the tricks of the potboiler. I also want a rush of ideas and images that can and will stay with me when the novel itself ends - something to frighten and tease me with grotesquery or to charm me with simplicity. Demanding little bugger aren’t I? Well The Slow Death of Patrick O’Reilly has left me well pleased. It’s a real task to write simple, pretty language that doesn’t bog itself down with needless metaphor and yet hints of something deeper. It’s also really impressive to create a believable folk mythology - that is, something that is the sole creation of one mind, but somehow feels like it's a true folk myth, an urban legend fleshed with the whispers of generations.

The pivotal creation in this novel is the Patrick O’Reilly of the title - a man who lurks in the bush of Tasmania, wild and lonely and wandering, a bogeyman with a broken soul. He’s a link with the novel’s created past, a character that might be immortal but might be a trick, in a story that moves with a fluid sense across time and around many characters. Tasmanian farmers, a proto-feral girt child and a French interloper called, appropriately, Bernard. There are others as well, but the almost soap opera quality of some aspects of the plot (adultery and revenge and such) isn’t what sucked me in; it was the evocation of place.

I’m a diehard Tassie boy; I’m from here. I didn’t come here to study or to get freaked out by the wilderness. This place is my home so I can spot a fake a mile away and I loath the way so many try turn this place into some kind of dark crystal fairy land, without acknowledging that a place is made primarily of people. So many times I have heard wretched interlopers say this would be a great place if not for the people. Yes it is dark here, but we get on with our lives, and it’s lives that Phil Leask makes his wonderful almost-fable of a book from. Not that the bush isn’t there - the sense of place is very strong with this book - but it was the panorama of characters that really did it for me here.

I can and do recommend you read this book; there are a great many reasons why, but the bottom line is it’s good and it’s about Tasmania, and not even remotely like Richard ‘professional Tasmanian’ Flanagan’s dreary work. It smacks of things I love in a book: darkness and magic realism, and best of all it gets closer to really discussing stuff about my home, whilst acknowledging that the author isn’t a local, just someone who has watched and listened and felt. Go and buy The Slow Death of Patrick O’Reilly right now.

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History and Theirstories: A Review of Some Recent Australian and Asian Fiction
Douglas Kerr
Westerly, Vol. 46, November 2001

‘The past is not dead,’ said William Faulkner spookily. ‘It is not even past.’ It is a novelist’s idea - a historian would probably not put it like that - and novels, which conventionally tell their tales in a historic tense, are one place we are used to looking for a confirmation of this necessary sense of the presence of the past, its representation...

A myth of a different sort is at the centre of Phil Leask’s The Slow Death of Patrick O’Reilly. There are three main narrative strands to this intricately woven novel. The Patrick O’Reilly of the title is a tramp, but also a semi-legendary figure, dangerous and immemorial, who is believed by some to have roamed the Tasmanian forests for a hundred and fifty years. His story mingles with that of Bernard Laurent, a war-weary Frenchman who jumps ship in Tasmania and wanders into a secluded valley looking for work; and with that of Clément Hébert, another Frenchman who came to the island in 1802 and left a journal of his years wandering in the forest (and turns out to be the ancestor of the current Patrick). From early on, there is a self-consciousness here about place and story, land and history. The Frenchman who has come to Tasmania also seems, appropriately enough, to have landed in a storybook.

At last, he [Bernard] felt pleased to be ashore, wandering through the Tasmanian bush, wandering through the old stories that spilled out of everyone he spoke to whether he wanted to hear them or not, as if the whole country was awash with things that had happened and had to be talked about, things that had to have a life of their own, filling every space in this huge, wild, empty landscape.

Phil Leask writes powerfully about place when he is looking at it, but his view is too often obscured by a portentous and romantic insistence on the mystic numen of the land. You can see these moments coming by the length of the sentences, and their cumulative effect can be irritating. There are important and interesting issues here, about ‘development’ and land ownership and the relation of human beings to nature, but they are often steeped in a metaphysical solution that sometimes seems to mean a good deal less than it says, a Tasmanian sublime. ‘Now it was coming to a close, the dreamlike wanderings of an old man who had lived a life like no other, living with no thought or need for tomorrow, since today was forever and forever was a part of him, like the great, broken, immutable rocks that rose up around him, and the wind and the rain and the sun and the snow, and the lakes that one day would vanish beneath the sea...’ Phil Leask should perhaps be introduced to a really ruthless editor. ‘A country as young as this cannot have lost its history, not so soon,’ thinks Bernard. But there is just as much history as you want there to be. Patrick O’Reilly is the direct link with the past, with the earliest white settlement of the island, and with the state of nature; there is a story worth telling in his death.

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Human Nature Explored
Ivy Fleming
The Examiner, 1 September 2001

Phil Leask presents the intimacy of human nature in The Slow Death of Patrick O'Reilly.

The story is set in Tasmania, and focuses on two different men with similar lives spanning two centuries.

Everyone in the State has heard of Patrick O’Reilly, but they do not know if he really exists.

He is believed to be an escaped convict who has lived in the bush for over a century, tormenting people and killing their sheep.

It is the early 1900s, and little Cathy Connolly meets a man in the bush who calls himself Paddy. He is a gentle old man who provides Cathy with knowledge about the wilderness.

Then there’s Anna and Johnny McCluskey whose tepid marriage is being threatened by wandering Frenchman Bernard Laurent, who has grown tired of life on the seas and has settled into Tasmania's wilderness. Bernard has also become good friends with Elizabeth, who has given him some early 1800s French journals to translate.

The journals provide the second branch to the story.

It all collides when Cathy goes missing, and Anna and Bernard are forced to hide out in the bush - from the law and Johnny. Most people are convinced Patrick O’Reilly took Cathy, but the last person seen talking to her was Bernard.

Although it is a complex story, it impressively pieces together everything for the reader.

It conveys everything about the characters - what they see in themselves and others, and their uncertainty about their lives.

It also shows the two minds of the time - those who loved Tasmania’s wilderness and those who cleared land for fruit trees and livestock.

It is a compulsive read about all facets of life - including survival, love and family.

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A Long Time Dying
The Slow Death of Patrick O’Reilly
Giles Hugo (writer)
Island, No.87, Spring 2001

The Great Tasmanian Novel - henceforth GTN - is, like the thylacine, paradoxical and elusive. Evidence of its hoped-for presence is tantalising but inconclusive. Unless, like Fox Mulder and I, you believe it may still be Out There…

Some say the concept of the GTN is ridiculous - so parochial. Do we speak of the Great Queensland Novel? No, but we Tasmanians, like most small island communities, claim an identity that sets us apart. And, since Tasmania also claims the first Australian novel in Henry Savery’s 1831 Quintus Servinton, it seems appropriate to hope that turning Tasmanian lives, legends and longings into fiction will continue to be a potential growth industry striving for greatness.

This novel touches on themes common to several GTN claimants: the effects of white settlement on Tasmanian Aborigines and the environment, and that harsh landscape’s long-term impact on the interlopers.

The eponymous Patrick O’Reilly is a Tasmanian legend in his own extended lifetime - more than 150 years by popular account - an elusive wraith who taunts and haunts isolated valley communities with petty thefts of food and livestock, and opportunistic womanising. The only people who get to know him in more than just the biblical or mythical sense are: Cathy Connolly, a young girl; Bernard Laurent, a French sailor fleeing from memories of the Nazi occupation; Anna McCluskey, a farmer’s wife, who cuckolds her husband, Johnny; and spinster eccentric Elizabeth Morgan, who shelters both O’Reilly and Bernard at her home.

Elizabeth sets Bernard to work translating an ancient journal, written in French by Clement Hébert, a sailor who jumped ship in Van Diemen’s Land in 1802. It details his flight, brief contacts with Aborigines and decades of wandering in the wilds. Links between the journal and the mystery of O’Reilly’s origins propel the plot to the point where love, lust and jealous longing intersect. Coincidentally, Cathy chooses to follow O’Reilly into the mountains, leading to a huge manhunt for the presumed abductor and victim. The climax is predictably violent, the denouement neat - if somewhat forced - as the last pieces of the puzzle clunk-click into place.

So, is the long dying of Patrick O’Reilly a worthy prospect as the GTN? Or even just a GTN? For me it is not - and, since I am a follower of late, great rock writer Lester Bangs’s injunction to critics to be ‘honest and unmerciful’, here is the awful truth, as seen through my twisted, gonzoid vision.

The best snatches of writing come in Hébert’s musings, such as this neat bit of je ne sais quoi: ‘What I hold in my grasp now is a kind of emptiness that folds in on itself as I open my hand and gaze at it’.

There are sparkles of oblique characterisation - but too few - such as when Cathy first meets Bernard: ‘She continued to look at him as if he was a book she might want to read’. However, apart from the tortured soul revealed in Hébert’s journal, other members of the ensemble cast of fugitive outsiders and alienated insiders are lightly sketched: the lonely but indefinably wise young girl acting as precocious provoker of adult action; adulterous wife seeking real passion from the mysteriously driven French sailor she met at her wedding feast; spinster sage mothering all waifs and strays; and the ambitious, violent husband MCP. Industrial-strength recycled cardboard, mostly. Ho, hum.

The characters’ speaking voices are very much the same from mouth to mouth - scant depth, almost no humour. Sadly, nothing is made of Bernard and Clement’s native tongue, no colourful regional French oaths, not even a casually spat ‘Merde! And these dudes are sailors? Oh for the subterranean, poetic earthiness of Jean Genet’s Quenelle.

Thematic possibilities are also largely ignored. O’Reilly’s bogeyman role - scapegoat for the valley folk’s xenophobia and abiding fear of the wild environment - is stated but not satisfactorily examined. The Aborigines are merely sad and elusive human scenery in Hebert’s journal.

If the novel had shed the fifties melodrama and O Henryesque resolution, and been confined to an expanded and more in-depth journal, it might have worked. Instead, it’s just another well intentioned but bland, steam-driven, neo-Gothic mystery. The quest for the GTN continues.

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Many-layered perspective on Tasmania
Wayne Crawford
(From The Sunday Tasmanian, 29 April 2001)

The old tramp has spent a lifetime roaming the mountains, stealing sheep and chickens, raiding orchards and making love to farmers’ wives.

But is he involved in the disappearance into the bush of a little girl? And has his past caught up with him?

And the mysterious Frenchman - the unhappy, wandering sailor. Why has he jumped ship and headed for the hills?

Paddy O’Reilly, the tramp, has indeed roamed the Tasmanian forests since before Lake Pedder was dammed for a power scheme and before the Tasmanian tiger was hunted to extinction. He has been raiding orchards since the days when Tasmania was establishing its reputation as the Apple Isle.

And Bernard Laurent is spending his nights absorbed in the diaries of a fellow countryman of 150 years before in whose footsteps he now finds himself following.

This historical novel, The Slow Death of Patrick 0’Reilly, is set in Tasmania in two parallel periods - the 1950s when the state was emerging from World War II and finding its new identity, and in the pre-British period of 1802 when the French explorer and naturalist Nicolas Baudin’s party arrived in Van Diemen’s Land and surveyed the D’Entrecasteaux Channel.

This is the second novel by Phil Leask who, although Queensland-born and now living in London, is well known and remembered in Tasmania where he has lived for short periods, on and off, since the ‘60s when he came here to do some bushwalking, stayed on to do his Diploma of Education and spent a year teaching at Scottsdale.

That’s how he came to know the Tasmanian bush so well. Even now, living in London where he works as a freelance consultant in urban regeneration, his love for and fascination with the wilderness of southern Tasmania has remained part of him. He continues to make frequent visits back to Tasmania, most recently this month.

His writing is very much location-based, and he has woven into the book an intimate knowledge of the area of Tasmania where he has spent months of his life exploring the bush - the Huon, the Hartz Mountains, the South-West through to the South Coast.

Like the fictional Patrick 0’Reilly of his book, Phil Leask knew Lake Pedder before it was flooded for hydro-electric power and had known the Tasmanian rainforests in all their moods, all their weather patterns.

There are many layers to the characters and locations of The Slow Death of Patrick O’Reilly, but primarily there are the events of the mid-1950s in the rural Huon area, and flashbacks to 150 years previously through the device of diaries kept by a deserter from Nicolas Baudin’s party.

During his visits to Tasmania, Leask became fascinated with the strong French connection, evident even though it had been the British who made the early European settlements.

He discovered when doing historical research into the Baudin expedition which landed in Tasmania in 1862, that the party was threatened with death from scurvy. For his story Leask imagined: ‘But what if one of them said ‘I’m not going to die of scurvy; I’m going ashore...’?’

It is the diaries of that imaginary deserter that, a century and a half later, fall into the hands of yet another Frenchman who has jumped ship in Hobart and headed for the hills where his path crosses that of the locally infamous Paddy O’Reilly.

Against this backdrop the diaries reflect on a period of European enlightenment, the French Revolution merging into the period of Romanticism.

Leask’s first novel, By Way of Water, was set in north Queensland and Europe; his third, Olhovsky, Prince of Hamburg, will be published next year.

Although the 54-year-old Leask continues to work as a consultant advising on plans for urban redevelopment especially among deprived communities in Britain, he considers himself primarily a writer by profession.

The consultancy work is what allows him to follow that primary interest, he says.

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Taming the bush, tamed by the bush
Terry Monagle
Táin, June-July 2001

On Friday evening 25 April, Táin hosted a dinner with Phil Leask who has just published a new novel, The Slow Death of Patrick O’Reilly. According to Kevin Pearson of Black Pepper press who published the book, ‘Patrick O’Reilly has roamed the Tasmanian forests for 150 years. He knew Lake Pedder before it was flooded. He raids farms and apple orchards. He is involved with a lost child and with Bernard Laurent, a French sailor who has jumped ship. A farmer’s wife who has an affair with Laurent gives him a journal of a French deserter from Baudin’s 1802 expedition. Bernard’s translation leads to a violent revelation.’

Here are some remarks on Leask’s novel made by Terry Monagle as a beginning for our discussion.

In April this year, Ben Moloney staggered out of the southwest Tasmanian wilderness. This apparition, after 37 days of absence, engendered awe and suspicion. Novelist Richard Flanagan commented that it is good that there are still places where one can get lost. This is a romantic view. I’m inclined to a contrary position that if people don’t spend the $10 on hiring a positioning device, they can be left out there. Let the wanderers have the romance and not the taxpayer the cost.

However Flanagan is correct: the wilderness is powerful and valuable. Australians overseas mourn for it whatever it is. Issues to do with land and water are the bedrocks of our political and economic debates. The need is profound to get these right. Phil Leask makes an important contribution with his second novel, The Slow Death of Patrick O’Reilly.

To understand the nature of wilderness it is necessary to study ancient land formation and the history of flora and fauna. In his Australia: A Biography, Eric Rolls says, ‘There was no beginning, there is no end. Time is, it was and will be. The universe is infinite, there is an infinity of universes: the universe is best seen as a perpetual womb unendingly and unconsciously giving birth. Fertility, not consequence, is the main consideration.’

Some characters in The Slow Death of Patrick O’Reilly approach the wilderness in this spiritual way. One says: ‘I have discovered, at last, the secret. The secret is in time and space, through which I move untouched and untouching and which encloses me and confines me within a sense of infinity and eternity that is here and now and all around me, wherever I wander, whenever I sleep. Wake. Dream, walk or hunt.’

The Aboriginals who share the bush with him have not taught this unitive experience of the bush to him but he has learnt it from living alongside these black strangers. They share everything with him because he has reached this state of grace, this state of equanimity that is ‘worth more than all the centuries of a god who is all seeing and all forgiving but who never let me be that which I am and have become: myself.’

Feet as a way to God

Many Australian Christians are searching for a way of integrating the insights of their tradition with the place they are in. A Catholic nun in the Kimberley suggests, for instance, that in Australia a spirit god is less appropriate than one who emerges from the earth and enters us through our feet.

Such a god subjects us creatures to the land and its power. The land remains an awesome mystery and happiness can involve full immersion in it. This is similar to a Buddhist awareness.

The characters in The Slow Death of Patrick O’Reilly are likeable, with divisions and confusions, fears and lusts. They have the same sexual regenerative needs as the bush. They clear the forests to establish their own families and orchards. For them, too, fertility is more imperative than consequences.

Their lives evolve in interaction with a huge canvass of wilderness. Some become intoxicated with it and are sharers of its secrets. Others see it as enemy and are besotted by rumours of presences in the bush which haunt and frighten them. These latter neurotically need to destroy the things which come from the bush, anything their experiences don’t prepare them to understand.

The most powerful personality in the book is the wilderness. As one character says: ‘It is a mistake to attempt to tame this land.’ This is a challenging thought. It comes at a time as Australians retreat from the bush they tried so hard to tame over two centuries.

So this book is, amongst other things, about the spiritual power of place, it’s about people trying to find lives which are livable, not because they tame the bush but because they find niches around the margins of it. It also focuses on the contradictory human need for both solitude and community. Each of the characters is a solitary traveller even when in a rapturous embrace. They hear two sirens singing contradictory allurements. Is this not our condition?

This book is not about people wearing leather jackets sipping coffee in Paddington, Carlton or Notting Hill, it is not about grunge, sex or drugs, it is not about corporate malfeasance. This book made me look forward to getting into bed at night for that last half hour, that turning of the pages perhaps made from Tasmanian woodchips. Now, months after I have finished it, I can feel its myths and mythic perspectives roaming in my brain.

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