Christine Strelan - Between the Covers

The Ballad of Desmond Kale

Roger McDonald

Vintage 2005

Never judge a book by its cover. I chose this one for review because it sports a beautiful reproduction of a William Blake print. If Id looked closer, I would have noticed there were sheep in the background. In The Ballad of Desmond Kale, these woolly quadrupeds take centre stage. McDonalds novel is set during the early years of white settlement in Australia and the beginning of the wool industry.

It is by no means a bad book. McDonald can certainly string a sentence together. There are numerous quotes of praise from critics. Two of them use the word rollicking. On my personal scale of irritation, this word is up there with heart-warming. Many people love this sort of thing: fans of bush poetry, and the judges of the 2006 Miles Franklin Award among them. Call it my deficient taste, but in my perverse opinion, 600 rollicking, wool-filled pages is 599 too many.

Apart from my inability to get excited about fleece, my main problem with the book was the two-dimensional nature of the female characters. I remain unconvinced by bold convict lasses called Meg or Biddy who manage to be beautiful and spirited, despite poverty and oppression, tossing their raven hair and eagerly consenting to rollicking romps with anything in trousers.

The book is also full of romanticised notions of Irishness, and an underlying thread of sentimentality, especially in its predictable happy ending. Some of the events and characters are marred by the kind of cliches youd expect in some commercial TV mini-series.

On the plus side, I learned a lot about sheep. McDonald obviously loves his subject, and seems particularly well-informed on the history of merino breeding. Sea voyages also occur, and lovers of sailing ships will find enough technical references to keep them fascinated. The Australian bush is probably the most convincing character, perhaps because its not rollicking. McDonalds descriptions of it are detailed and full of enthusiasm for its flora and fauna.

Readers who lack my pathetic aversion to rollicking, or indeed, its close relation, roistering (maybe even rogering, but lets not go there...) may find The Ballad of Desmond Kale a treat.

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.

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