Now where was I? In Australia on my second circuit of Around the Globe with Pushkin Press. Let’s just tarry a little while longer before moving on, because I’ve just read one of the best debuts I’ve ever encountered, and, if this novel does not figure prominently on the lists for next year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, my flabber will be well and truly gasted!
Only Killers and Thieves takes us back to 1885, the era of the Australian Wild West, a time we hardly ever hear about, but one in which the authorities and their representatives lacked a moral compass, and the state sponsored militia – in this case, the Queensland Native Police – could act with impunity against the native population. Their sole mission was the “dispersal” (genocide) of indigenous Australians to “protect” (establish) settlers’ rights. Howarth’s depiction of this brutal age is not sanitised (though he would argue that the reality in the history books is far worse than anything shown here.) The racist and sexist actions and statements of the characters are of that time. There’s no point coming to this novel expecting 21st century sensitivities. That is how it was. And if you’ve ever watched a film through your fingers, thinking I can’t watch this, but neither can I look away, that is exactly how the novel reads. It is vivid and visual. As Howarth said at the Edinburgh Book Festival, “I saw the film as I wrote the book”. So did I, as I read it.
At the heart of Only Killers and Thieves is an exploration of what makes us human and how we can maintain our humanity when societal constraints are removed. It’s the question that has arisen time and time again throughout history. Here it is asked of two adolescent brothers, Billy and Tommy. Their choices will dictate the kind of men they will become.
They are the sons of settlers – honest, decent folk who do not espouse the prevailing view towards the indigenous people. When their parents and younger sister are slaughtered at their homestead, the crime is blamed on a disaffected native, and the boys are corralled into joining the tracking party, marshalled by the infamous Inspector Noone of the Queensland Native Police. Having just lost the guardians of their consciences, how will the boys fare?
This is a coming-of-age as extreme as it gets. As the tracking party progresses through the outback, casual cruelty becomes breathtakingly callous. One brother takes it in his stride, the other questions it at every turn. Avoiding participation where he can. Trying to be good in a world that is anything but. What chance does a 14-year old orphan have? It’s impossible, and this journey into the outback is just the buildup to something truly horrendous, something I knew was coming but hoped wouldn’t.
But when it did, Howarth switched from the 3rd person omnisicience, to Tommy’s 1st person POV, thus restricting the reader’s view. Thankfully, because it would have been just too much. However, the effect was much more emotional, and the experience of being inside Tommy’s head at that defining moment made the man he became much more understandable.
There’s no denying, this is an unflinchingly violent book, but is any of it gratuitous? “The answer to that question lies with the reader,” said Howarth. “If the answer is yes, the reader will close the book.” I didn’t. In fact, I couldn’t put it down. I found it mesmerising, with the same shock value, as McCarthy’s The Road. That’s because Only Killers and Thieves isn’t just about history, it’s also about landscape, relationships and, particularly, the tragic toll on the two brothers.
As for the identity of the killer of Billy and Tommy’s family? I didn’t enjoy the novel any less, having working this out much quicker than Tommy (because I had the benefit of an omnisicient narrator). But the fallout took me a little by surprise, while at the same time adding a shade of darkness to the good guy, and a shade of light to the real villian of the piece. As Howarth said, it’s about humanity. No-one is 100% perfect. We can discuss whether there are those who are 100% evil.