Book of the Month

This month's book club read is The Sound by Sarah Drummond

Recently longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award, the world’s most valuable literary prize, The Sound is based on a true story of the men, women and children who traveled from Bass Strait to King George Sound in 1825 on the sealing schooners Hunter and Governor Brisbane.

Wiremu Heke is newly a man when the chiefs call a meeting about Captain Kelly and the Sophia in Aramoana, Otakau, in 1825. Eight years have passed, and still his people wait for an opportunity to avenge the family members they lost in the slaughter of 1817. Ordered to work aboard a sealer to track down Kelly, Wiremu finds himself on a voyage across the Southern Ocean with a crew of men from many nations. Christened ‘Billhook’ by the men, his priorities begin to change as he witnesses the abuse of Indigenous women by his shipmates. He makes it his mission to protect a young Aboriginal girl stolen from her family and taken aboard their vessel. For each of them – sealers, women and child alike – their survival relies on a complex web of relationships and dependencies.

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Meet the author

What was your inspiration for writing The Sound?
I first heard about the Breaksea Island sealing community about ten years ago, and I wondered at the wildness of that mob. I thought their story sounded far more interesting than the usual settlement history of King George Sound, where the Breaksea Islanders tend to be relegated to a couple of lines in the history books. I wanted to find out who they were, where they came from and how they survived despite their circumstances.

What made you choose this era, and these characters, to write about?
Because it was still a contact period between the Aboriginal people and Europeans in Western Australia, there are great opportunities for a writer to explore these interpersonal relationships on a more intimate scale. It was also quite lawless, at least for the sealers. So there was a lot of scope for a writer to tease out how people respond to situations where they are not constrained by social contracts and legal systems. The characters fascinated me. They came from all over the world and so the story, although based in King George Sound, is global in its nature.

Were there limitations to what you could discover about the backgrounds of different characters – points at which the trail you were on went cold? How did you overcome this?
Yes, some of the characters were very difficult to track down. Names were spelled incorrectly, or not recorded at all, most of the historical characters were illiterate and left no written records of their own, and a myriad of other glitches happened during the research. This can be a blessing for a writer of historical fiction. It allows the writer to step into the negative spaces, to dream, imagine and invoke. And a writer can also research ‘around’ the character, to form an idea of what life would have been like for that person.

In many Australian novels, we read about Australia as a continent inhabited on from the land, whose characters look out to sea. A novel such as this one utterly reverses this dynamic. Do you think that this altered perspective of the island continent viewed from the water enables us to consider the entity that is ‘Australia’ in a different way?
In the early years of colonisation, most business was done from the sea. Ship’s crews were the equivalent of the modern day truckie and everyone travelled by sea if they needed to cover vast distances. The view of the land from the sea was a European settler’s view of Australia. I think we have turned our backs on the sea, to become a culture obsessed with land, and on colonisation narratives that focused on the taming of the bush. If hungry for the spoils of the great south land, the sealers definitely understood that they were only visitors. Acts of negotiation or violence could get them what they wanted but they knew they didn’t belong here.

To hear more behind Sarah’s writing process and the extensive historical research behind the book, watch her interview with Meri Fatin on Cover to Cover.