Tales of the New World

By Sabina Murray


Black Cat/Grove
November 2011

Reviewed by Adam Parker Cogbill


Having threatened to shoot any of his army that follow, Vasco Núñez de Balboa climbs a mountain to claim the South Sea for Spain. "Discovery," he thinks, "is a tricky matter." And so it is; as we learn in Sabina Murray's new short story collection, Tales of the New World, the Western world has been shaped not only by what has been discovered, but by who's done the discovering. Though why could be appended to this list, it is more appropriately folded into who: Murray's explorers' expansion—or, perhaps, "muddling"—of the world's boundaries is a direct result of the expansion of their selves' boundaries.

It's unclear to me if "historical fiction" refers to a shelf in a chain bookseller, a cousin of romance genre fiction with perhaps slightly lurid covers and more affected dialogue, or simply fiction that features actual historical figures, e.g. E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Michael Chabon's The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, Chris Bachelder's U.S.! and Don Delilo's Underworld.  More interesting to me than how it is defined, though, is what it's capable of in the hands of a skilled writer. In Tales of the New World, Murray animates individuals flattened by the pages of history, and reveals tragedy and inspiration in events I previously thought of—if I thought of them at all—as "some stuff that happened once." "Fish" is the story of Mary Kingsley, niece of the writer Charles Kingsley. It spans the childhood she spent caring for her sickly mother to her career as one of the most intrepid explorers of Africa. The story opens in 1870, when Mary is eight. She "[is] a girl who [wants] to be a fish," a desire instilled in her because she is a "prisoner" of her own house, "with its sluggish ticking clocks and dust-filled air, with fairies sneering at you behind the molding, threadbare curtains, and mother all afire with her tiny pain-people who hide where no one can see them." Mary's father, a ship's physician, is barely home, and Mary's world is populated only by her invalid mother, ungrateful brother, the family's housekeeper, and a group of cruel, imaginary fairies who serve as physical manifestations of Mary's fears and desires.

When, twenty-one years later, both Mary's parents die, Mary is suddenly free of her duty, a word that by then "sounds like a death march to [her]." She becomes two selves: the woman "hungry" to explore, who feels "oddly herself" on a "merchant steamer in all its industrial, dirt-generating practicality," and the woman who is occasionally "reeled back" to England, to her brother and "that other self." Mary's "rather vague mission, to explore the interior" of Africa, is as much about expanding the edge of the known Western world as it is about expanding what she knows about herself, twenty-nine-year old "spinster" who has never been free to make her own choices. What is significant, and perhaps subversive, about "Fish," is that it depicts "the whole clatter of Victorian, Regency, Tudor, medieval, Norman, Roman, Gaelic, English history…somehow come[ing] to a point with [Mary] and her two leather boot tips edging into the West African forest." By the end of "Fish," Mary's become a celebrity: she is a writer, an expert and commentator on African customs, and a naturalist. But Murray shows us that this tremendous contribution to Western culture is a product of an individual's desire for freedom and aversion to the role assigned her as a woman in the 19th century.

"Full Circle Thrice" is set in age of "Exploration teetering into Reason." The narrator—a sort of tragicomic god who is either omniscient or has done her research—speaks freely both to us and to the story's protagonist, William Dampier. She informs us that Dampier is a "failed businessman" and "seasoned traveler," that "there is a sense of destiny about him, that greatness, like some buzzing halo stands about his head." Dampier is a man driven by a desire to make the unknown his; a "navigator who cannot bear stillness." As its title suggests, "Full Circle Thrice" is about Dampier's three circumnavigations of the world, first as pirate, then as a Captain in the British Royal Navy, and finally as sailing master to a privateer.  Dampier is driven not by want of power or wealth, but to be beyond the edges of the map. He wonders, "Why cannot man just travel? Why must one be a priest, or soldier, or buccaneer? Why cannot one just board a boat to see what lies after the great remove of ocean?" Like many of the stories in Tales of the New World, "Full Circle Thrice" isn't just an exciting adventure story; in it, Dampier becomes more than just a significant explorer. He is the man who sought to map the winds and tides, who argues with Pliny, whose curiosity directly inspired Coleridge and Swift, the man to whom we owe so much of our understanding.

 There's something shocking about Tales of the New World. It's not the corporeal horrors visited upon natives that we usually associate with stories of Colonial exploration, though Murray doesn't shy away from these. Nor is it that well-told stories about ambitious people often reflect the vicious parts of our psyches, though this too is present in these stories. I was made aware, as I read, that those who explored what is now the space Western Civilization occupies were trying, mostly, to discover something about their selves. That what I think of as the Australian coastline is a product of some unsatisfied mind.  That where I am today might have a lot to do with a single person's curiosity, or desire for freedom, or need to escape (all of which, perhaps, are the same thing). This may explain why my mental camera—the one activated by enthralling fiction—spent a lot of time doing epic, birds-eye-view flybys as I read Tales of the New World. In this way, Murray is a cartographer of Western civilization, her new collection an exploration of our boundaries.