Book Review: South of Darkness by John Marsden

I've not read any of John Marsden's young adult fiction so didn't know what to expect from his first novel for adults.

What grabbed my attention was the unusual premise of someone deliberately committing a crime to get themselves transported to Australia, and that is what thirteen year old Barnaby Fletch did.

South of Darkness is narrated from the perspective of Barnaby Fletch as an adult. At the request of the Reverend Johnson he is writing down the story of his childhood and how he came to the colony of New South Wales.

Orphaned at a young age, Barnaby lives on the streets of East Smithfield, London, a place known as "Hell" by its inhabitants. The name speaks for itself. He survives by stealing and the occasional act of charity, and shelters where he can, but his favourite refuge is St. Martin's church. For one living rough in 18th century London, Barnaby is an innocent, in sharp contrast to the population around him.

When he falls foul of one of London's vicious criminals, Barnaby hatches a plan to escape to Australia, a land he has heard is warm and where food is plentiful. His means of escape is to commit a crime that will get him transported. Warned to only steal goods less than five shillings to avoid the death penalty, he sets about committing his crime. His first few attempts fail, but eventually he is charged with stealing and sentenced to be transported, to Botany Bay on board the Admiral Barrington, a ship of the Third Fleet.

As interesting as Barnaby's exploits were, I didn't quite connect with him. This meant I wasn't totally absorbed in the events taking place. Dark deeds are hinted at, but are kept relatively low key. His reaction to the acts of cruelty and brutality he witnesses, and the threats he receives, lack emotion. I also found the narration bland.

However, John Marsden's book does have some redeeming features. The plot was well thought out and I enjoyed Marsden's description of life in 18th century London and the colony of New South Wales. The interaction with the indigenous population was particularly enlightening and a credit to his research.

While I cannot describe this novel as a page turner, it was a decent read. The ending hinted at a continuation of Barnaby Fletch's story, but I'm not sure I liked South of Darkness well enough to read a sequel.

This book formed part of my commitment to the following reading challenges:

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