urban legend fleshed with the whispers of generations
Go and buy The
Slow Death of Patrick O’Reillyright
now Andrew Harper, Togatus months
have finished it, I can feel its myths and mythic perspectives roaming
in my brain Terry Monagle, Táin
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
collector of historical documents. She gives him a journal of an
earlier Frenchman, a deserter from Nicolas Baudin’s 1802
expedition. The journal tells an almost parallel story of tenderness
and brutality. Bernard’s translation leads to a startling and
Set across two centuries, Phil Leask’s compelling new novel
with effortless ease.
characters are multi-layered.
They are rich with personal histories and messy emotional baggage,
is something of a rarity in recent Australian literature.
Melissa Hart, Australian Book
Phil Leask is just on
the money... he
is an orginal and new voice.
Question of Identity The
Slow Death of
Laurie Clancy Overland,
No. 169, Summer 2002
Phil Leask comes with
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
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
the Bush, writing his journals with an ink he has made out of
‘berries and some sort of earth or clay’ and
on his back that somehow lasts thirty years. Perhaps we can say of him
also, as O’Reilly says of Bernard, that he ‘carried
suffering with him like some Biblical mark upon his
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:
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
This is fairly typical of a novel which seems to be making attempts at
immense but obscure significance.
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
to go by, he really should be. As a reader, I want a style that seduces
keep on reading, but doesn’t patronise me with the tricks of
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
needless metaphor and yet hints of something deeper.
It’s also really impressive to create a believable folk
is, something that is the sole creation of one mind, but somehow feels
it's a true folk myth, an urban legend fleshed with the whispers of
The pivotal creation in this novel is the Patrick O’Reilly of
- a man who lurks in the bush of Tasmania, wild and lonely and
a bogeyman with a broken soul. He’s a link with the
a character that might be immortal but might be a trick, in a story
moves with a fluid sense across time and around many characters.
farmers, a proto-feral girt child and a French interloper called,
Bernard. There are others as well, but the almost soap opera quality of
aspects of the plot (adultery and revenge and such) isn’t
in; it was the evocation of place.
I’m a diehard Tassie boy; I’m from here. I
didn’t come here to
to get freaked out by the wilderness. This place is my home so I can
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
get on with our lives, and it’s lives that Phil Leask makes
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
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
someone who has watched and listened and
felt. Go and buy The
Slow Death of
Patrick O’Reilly right now.
Back to top History and Theirstories: A
Review of Some
Recent Australian and Asian Fiction
Douglas Kerr Westerly,
Vol. 46, November
‘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
A myth of a different sort is at the centre of Phil Leask’s The Slow Death of Patrick
There are three main narrative strands to this intricately woven novel.
The Patrick O’Reilly of the title is a tramp, but also a
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.
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
introduced to a really ruthless editor. ‘A country as young
cannot have lost its history, not so soon,’ thinks Bernard.
is just as much history as you want there to be. Patrick
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.
Ivy Fleming The Examiner,
Phil Leask presents the
of human nature in The
Slow Death of
The story is set in Tasmania, and focuses on two
similar lives spanning two centuries.
Everyone in the State has heard of Patrick
O’Reilly, but they
know if he really exists.
He is believed to be an escaped convict who has lived in
over a century, tormenting people and killing their sheep.
It is the early 1900s, and little Cathy Connolly meets a
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
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
forced to hide out in the bush - from the law and Johnny. Most people
are convinced Patrick O’Reilly took Cathy, but the last
talking to her was Bernard.
Although it is a complex story, it impressively pieces
everything for the reader.
It conveys everything
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
wilderness and those who cleared land for fruit trees and livestock.
It is a compulsive read about all facets of life -
love and family.
Back to top A Long Time Dying The
Slow Death of
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
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 eponymous Patrick O’Reilly is a Tasmanian legend in his
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
Aborigines and decades of wandering in the wilds. Links between the
journal and the mystery of O’Reilly’s origins
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
So, is the long dying of Patrick O’Reilly a worthy prospect
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
critics to be ‘honest and unmerciful’, here is the
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
There are sparkles of oblique characterisation - but too few - such as
when Cathy first meets Bernard: ‘She continued to look at him
if he was a book she might want to read’. However, apart from
tortured soul revealed in Hébert’s journal, other
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
to mouth - scant depth, almost no humour. Sadly, nothing is made of
Bernard and Clement’s native tongue, no colourful regional
oaths, not even a casually spat ‘Merde! And these
dudes are sailors? Oh for the subterranean, poetic earthiness of Jean
Thematic possibilities are also largely ignored.
bogeyman role - scapegoat for the valley folk’s xenophobia
abiding fear of the wild environment - is stated but not satisfactorily
examined. The Aborigines are merely sad and elusive human scenery in
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
but bland, steam-driven, neo-Gothic mystery. The quest for the GTN
perspective on Tasmania
(From The Sunday Tasmanian, 29 April 2001)
The old tramp has spent
lifetime roaming the mountains, stealing
sheep and chickens, raiding orchards and making love to
But is he involved in the disappearance into the bush of
And has his past caught up with him?
And the mysterious Frenchman - the unhappy, wandering
he jumped ship and headed for the hills?
Paddy O’Reilly, the tramp, has indeed roamed
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
And Bernard Laurent is spending his nights absorbed in
fellow countryman of 150 years before in whose footsteps he now finds
This historical novel, The Slow Death of
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
This is the second novel by Phil Leask who, although
and now living in London, is well known and remembered in Tasmania
where he has lived for short periods, on and off, since the
he came here to do
some bushwalking, stayed on to do his Diploma of Education and spent a
teaching at Scottsdale.
That’s how he came to know the Tasmanian bush
so well. Even
in London where he works as a freelance consultant in urban
his love for and fascination with the wilderness of southern Tasmania
remained part of him. He continues to make frequent visits back to
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
his life exploring the bush - the Huon, the Hartz Mountains, the
through to the South Coast.
Like the fictional Patrick 0’Reilly of his
book, Phil Leask
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
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
French connection, evident even though it had been the British who made
the early European settlements.
He discovered when doing historical research into the
which landed in Tasmania in 1862, that the party was threatened with
from scurvy. For his story Leask imagined: ‘But what if one
‘I’m not going to die of scurvy; I’m
It is the diaries of that imaginary deserter that, a
later, fall into the hands of yet another Frenchman who has jumped ship
Hobart and headed for the hills where his path crosses that of the
infamous Paddy O’Reilly.
Against this backdrop the diaries reflect on a period of
enlightenment, the French Revolution merging into the period of
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
advising on plans for urban redevelopment especially among deprived
communities in Britain, he considers himself primarily a writer by
The consultancy work is what allows him to follow that
interest, he says.
tamed by the bush
Terry Monagle Táin, June-July 2001
On Friday evening 25
hosted a dinner with Phil
has just published a new novel, The Slow Death of Patrick
According to Kevin Pearson of Black Pepper press who published the
‘Patrick O’Reilly has roamed the Tasmanian forests
for 150 years. He
Lake Pedder before it was flooded. He raids farms and apple orchards.
is involved with a lost child and with Bernard Laurent, a French sailor
has jumped ship. A farmer’s wife who has an affair with
a journal of a French deserter from Baudin’s 1802 expedition.
leads to a violent revelation.’
Here are some remarks on Leask’s novel made by
Terry Monagle as
for our discussion.
In April this year, Ben Moloney staggered out of the
wilderness. This apparition, after 37 days of absence, engendered awe
suspicion. Novelist Richard Flanagan commented that it is good that
are still places where one can get lost. This is a romantic view.
to a contrary position that if people don’t spend the $10 on
device, they can be left out there. Let the wanderers have the romance
not the taxpayer the cost.
However Flanagan is correct: the wilderness is powerful
overseas mourn for it whatever it is. Issues to do with land and water
the bedrocks of our political and economic debates. The need is
to get these right. Phil Leask makes an important contribution with his
novel, The Slow Death of Patrick O’Reilly.
To understand the nature of wilderness it is necessary to
formation and the history of flora and fauna. In his Australia:
Eric Rolls says, ‘There was no beginning, there is no end.
Time is, it
and will be. The universe is infinite, there is an infinity of
the universe is best seen as a perpetual womb unendingly and
giving birth. Fertility, not consequence, is the main
Some characters in The Slow Death of Patrick
wilderness in this spiritual way. One says: ‘I have
the secret. The secret is in time and space, through which I move
and untouching and which encloses me and confines me within a sense of
and eternity that is here and now and all around me, wherever I wander,
I sleep. Wake. Dream, walk or hunt.’
The Aboriginals who share the bush with him have not
experience of the bush to him but he has learnt it from living
these black strangers. They share everything with him because he has
this state of grace, this state of equanimity that is ‘worth
the centuries of a god who is all seeing and all forgiving but who
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
of their tradition with the place they are in. A Catholic nun in the
suggests, for instance, that in Australia a spirit god is less
than one who emerges from the earth and enters us through our feet.
Such a god subjects us creatures to the land and its
an awesome mystery and happiness can involve full immersion in it. This
similar to a Buddhist awareness.
The characters in The Slow Death of Patrick
with divisions and confusions, fears and lusts. They have the same
regenerative needs as the bush. They clear the forests to establish
own families and orchards. For them, too, fertility is more imperative
Their lives evolve in interaction with a huge canvass of
become intoxicated with it and are sharers of its secrets. Others see
as enemy and are besotted by rumours of presences in the bush which
and frighten them. These latter neurotically need to destroy the things
come from the bush, anything their experiences don’t prepare
The most powerful personality in the book is the
says: ‘It is a mistake to attempt to tame this
land.’ This is a
thought. It comes at a time as Australians retreat from the bush they
so hard to tame over two centuries.
So this book is, amongst other things, about the
it’s about people trying to find lives which are livable, not
tame the bush but because they find niches around the margins of it. It
focuses on the contradictory human need for both solitude and
Each of the characters is a solitary traveller even when in a rapturous
They hear two sirens singing contradictory allurements. Is this not our
This book is not about people wearing leather jackets
Carlton or Notting Hill, it is not about grunge, sex or drugs, it is
about corporate malfeasance. This book made me look forward to getting
bed at night for that last half hour, that turning of the pages perhaps
from Tasmanian woodchips. Now, months after I have finished it, I can
its myths and mythic perspectives roaming in my brain.