It is a rare thing to read a historical fiction novel with a female main character that is truly a main character in her story (well, unless she is a Queen). And more often than not, when we have such a story, it comes entirely from an author’s imagination. I guess that is because so little is often known about women’s lives in the past, but I think it’s also a sign of publishing trends that there is simply not much published along these lines. A few each year, but more likely then not, women are portrayed in their relationship to the men in their lives, but I am glad to report, that Meg Keneally’s book could have never been called the Fisherman’s Daughter.
Jenny’s father was a fisherman and after his death, his daughters and wife are left to struggle on. The 18th century was brutal to women in general, but especially when left behind without “male” protection and income, society was simply designed for women to be dependent on men, so without that, Jenny’s life soon spirals into financial misery. Somehow she falls into becoming a robber on the highways, which inevitably ends her in court and then on a transportation ship.
Jenny has not been given many choices in life, but her will to survive and struggle for liberty is second to none. Even as a prisoner, Jenny rarely wavers in her sense of self and keeps a level of agency many female characters in novels lack: She is the engine that drives this story and this is what made it such a fantastic read. The book is harsh, unjust and brutal in places, but also just so full of hope.
The story is based on the life of Mary Bryant and the author outlines in the afterword the similarities and inspirations for the story and the reason why she decided to base a character on Mary rather than trying to tell Mary’s story. And I appreciated that a lot. I always prefer if a story is told in that way, as I find myself otherwise unpicking fact from fiction. But a word of warning: Try not read anything about Mary Bryant’s life as this will spoil some of the major plot points in the novel. And you would want to enjoy them without expecting them to happen.
Meg Keneally is an Australian author who has co-authored books with her father Tom Keneally, these books are highly rated and I shall get my hands on them soon. Fled is her solo debut.
Certainly a book, you should pack into your suitcase and take with you on your summer travels, or read it at home with a cup of tea and be grateful that you don’t live in the 18th century.