The Sinkings, Amanda Curtin’s debut novel, is about searching out questions with answers that cannot be found. The past is a riddle and the future exists only to undo those actions already done.

Curtin frames the story of Little Jock, a little man with a big secret, against that of a twentieth century Australian family also touched by the anomaly of an intersex child. Narrated by Willa, a divorced copy-editor and cat lover, the book centers around her discovery of an unsolved murder case from 1882. Willa’s interest is piqued when she learns that victim John Little Jock’s remains were initially identified as female. Little Jock was so savagely dismembered his identity couldn’t be confirmed until his skull was later found buried near the murder site, a desolate campsite called The Sinkings after the wells once sunk there.

Delving deeper into the mystery of Little Jock, Willa illuminates the dark history by consulting archives, historians, census records, official transcripts and articles. Paging through handwritten court documents on a trek to Scotland, Willa finds herself in the Kelvingrove Museum. A glossy oil painting by Giovanni Antonio Canaletto catches her eye: “A caprice landscape with ruins, Oil on canvas. This type of painting is called a caprice, which means it is a mixture of real and imaginary details.” The line stays with her, “A mixture of real and imaginary details. It seemed to Willa that this was the essence of memory, perhaps even of history itself.”

From what Willa can piece together, Little Jock was born into horrific poverty in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland in 1838. Besides surviving his very apparent otherness, little John King had to survive famine, plague and poverty, not to mention a collector of human curiosities that wanted to sell his body as a specimen in a bottle to the highest bidder. On the run from this shadowy world of back alley cadaver catchers Little Jock meets Mary, who adopts him and takes him on her crossing to Scotland in an effort to escape the hunger.

Mary Lunney’s story makes Little Jock all the more human for Willa and allows her to identify with another mother of an intersex child. As she is piecing together the story of Little Jock, Willa is also trying to put back the pieces with her daughter. She struggles to come to terms with the decision she and her husband made for their baby Imogen, who grew up to remember the repeated trauma of surgery and the probing follow-up visits as a rape.

In Little Jock, Curtin creates an elegantly drawn portrait of half a man who is very much a caprice. Surviving penal life in Australia until he can be free to start his own trade venture, he lives a simple, hard life in the wide-open spaces of the outback. Occasionally his desire gets the best of him, and occasionally he finds a body that pretends to desire his.

The slow unfolding of the drama around Little Jock’s murder drives the reading, and readers would do well to remember a realization Willa has while searching out the mysteries of the past, “What madness to expect a whole picture of something so mutable as a human life.”
——
The Sinkings
by Amanda Curtin
University of Western Australia Press
$22.50
ISBN 978-1921401114
Paperback, 380 pp.


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  • Michael Craft

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