Daniela's Reviews > The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding

The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes
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Apr 09, 2012

I don't feel able to give a star rating to this book. It's a dense, intensely researched book that I found incredibly hard work. Robert Hughes deserves full credit for this labour of love; until he wrote The Fatal Shore , no one else had dared to look at Australia's convict history. However, this book has serious problems.

First of all, as a history, it is primarily narrative in its structure. This is always going to hinder the analytical strength of the book and I felt that there was too much wadding and not enough substance. In a book that's well over 600 pages if you include notes and references, that's exasperating. However, as the book swings between New South Wales, Van Dieman's Land, Norfolk Island, and occasionally branches out to what will become Victoria and Queensland, the attempt at a narrative becomes confused. Either tell the story or analyse the history objectively. Don't try to do both.

Second, someone seems to have omitted the key inclusions of maps and timelines. When you are looking at a complex history spanning decades, these are invaluable. Show us who was governor when, what was happening back in the UK, and what Australia's human geography looked like in comparison.

Third, women were glanced over so summarily in this book that it made me shudder. Female convicts were a significant minority and whilst Hughes does devote all of half a chapter to their treatment, he makes no further analysis into their lives or into the effects of their treatment on Australia's future. Emancipist and Settler women are not covered at all and governors' wives are given a cursory glance. At least one of these governors' wives was regarded as being a significant power behind the throne, but Hughes reduces her to a cartoon character. That's not good enough.

Finally, what about Western Australia? It gets mentioned in the final pages of this epic book. Perth might have been founded a few decades after Sydney, but Western Australia comprises about one third of Australia's landmass. It doesn't deserve to be forgotten.

For a book that was heralded as ground-breaking and is regarded as being the seminal work on Australia's convict past, it left me disappointed and I was relieved to finish it.
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Reading Progress

April 9, 2012 – Started Reading
April 9, 2012 – Shelved
April 14, 2012 –
page 145
April 17, 2012 –
page 260
April 17, 2012 –
page 260
37.79% "I really shouldn't have read the chapter detailing the survival of some runaway convicts by cannibalism when eating my lunch."
April 28, 2012 –
page 410
59.59% "I really shouldn't have read the chapter detailing the survival of some runaway convicts by cannibalism when eating my lunch."
May 4, 2012 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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Kathy I suspect he didn't have a lot of sources for the lives of women. As he says about the lives of the aboriginal women in Sydney when the first fleet arrived. Nothing was written down about their lives because the mean found it of no interest and not worth recording. This has happened through much of human history all the way back to ancient Egypt. However, Mary Bryant's escape from Australia story is pretty remarkable.

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