Catherine McKinnon’s Will Martin, another novella from Griffith Review 50: The Novella Project III, is an immersive historical fiction based on the 1796 mission by George Bass and Matthew Flinders to explore the coastline of the Illawarra region south of Sydney, in the small boat Tom Thumb.
I read this 25,000-word novella in a single sitting and found it captivating from the first page. The story is told from the perspective of the titular character, Will Martin, a young naval servant who accompanies Bass and Flinders on the journey. By focalising through this lowly character who remains a bit of a historical void (little is known of his life), McKinnon is able to explore the thoughts and concerns of colonial settlers and explorers, particularly with respect to the cross-cultural complications of first contact. This is, inevitably, still the perspective of the colonisers, who view the Aboriginal people—’Indians’—on a spectrum from childlike innocents to savage cannibals, but the narration of Will Martin’s interiority provides valuable nuance.