The progression of “Fled” [Meg Keneally/Arcade/408pgs] is one of abstract strife but undoubted perseverance. While the conclusion of the book reflects more in the idea of admiring lives that are only given praise in hindsight, the journey of Jenny Gwyn in the book is a great tale. This book would make a wonderful series and character study especially in the days of series like “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” but with a decidedly darker tinge. The travails and discussions of today didn’t exist on the ship that Jenny was sentenced to after being convicted of stealing from a women of stature in England. Rather than hang, she is sent on a ship where both men and women are carted as slaves, cheaper than labor, to help work colonies in border lands in Australia. The colonies could be anywhere. It is simply a prison from which there is no escape. The vividness of the times on the boat and even on land have a sense of intensity about them. Jenny knows how to survive and while not being overtly assertive or aggressive, realizes how to make her life work and how it can go wrong. She marries a man who is both admired of her but also misled on his own importance. This to and fro is the pulse of the book. Jenny is mostly right but she also wants her husband, who is the best fisherman in the colony to live up to his standard. But jealousy among others and the inherent politics of class, greed and avarice definitely play into the proceedings. This is not “Lord Of The Flies” but people simply surviving on the edge of society where society still thinks it has a foothold. It is reminiscent of the house Martin Sheen visits in the director’s cut of “Apocalypse Now” It is real and yet almost imaginary…a hell from which there is no escape. And yet plans are made.
The dexterity but also vignettes of optimism which Keneally captures in small details with the fish, Jenny’s eventual children and the natives give voices to that desolation and helplessness that “Lost” sometimes had but also hope that can be quickly quashed. The eventual escape through both folly and punishment from the island references “The Bounty” but also brings to mind Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat”. The details as they traverse the sea in a boat that should not is made beautiful by the simple visions and repairs that are done along the way. While it might sound mundane in the writing of this review, it is not. It is existential without pretending to be….dramatic without resorting to melodrama. The struggle between life and death as well as ego is an interesting conundrum as played out on the boat as seen by Keneally. There is a rescue of sorts but the way it plays out adheres to the true nature of the characters leading them from the brink of salvation back into the depths of hell. Without giving the ending away, the book relays the possibility of redemption in a certain fashion. While this is admirable and does keep in time with the real life aspect of Mary Bryant, it almost comes off too neat. The ending epilogue the author admits is a fabrication and it feels so since it lacks the authenticity of the rest of Jenny’s journey, not to spite it but rather to try to give it meaning. But in doing so, it belittles her suffering in a way. Three-quarters of the book is fantastic while the last quarter feels like a moderate tack. Nevertheless it is a fantastic female-centric story that plays across the board both tugging at the heartstrings but also providing a sense of adventure even in a dark context. In many ways there is a parallel to Netflix’s recent “Lost In Space” with the matriarch pushing through with logic and emotion pushing at each other. Granted it lives in a different time but the same universal truths remain constant.
By Tim Wassberg