The Roving Party dredges up the mud at the bottom of collective memory, and brings the bloody past to the surface equanimity of the present. It is less a novel than an epic, tragic poem, imagining the doings of Tasmanian pioneer John Batman as he hunts and slaughters Aboriginal Tasmanians in exchange for land and money.
Alongside Batman, the fictional Black Bill, raised and educated as if he were a white man, specifically targets the warrior Manalargena, another historical character, who in the early 1800s led guerilla-style resistance attacks on European colonizers. Author Rohan Wilson imbues Manalargena with mystical powers, including the gift of prophecy and a seeming imperviousness to mortal weaponry. Even these supernatural qualities, however, never detract from the grotesque realism of the story. Wilson’s goal seems to be to make his countrymen look at the earth they stand on and see it as if it were soaked in blood, as it often is over the course of his story.
The novel begins with a promise and a threat. The promise lies with Black Bill’s wife, Katherine, who is pregnant. Manalargena, on a purposeful visit to Bill, tells him he sees that the child will be a strong boy. But he also threatens Black Bill, whom he knows intends to join John Batman’s roving party. You can follow him, he tells Bill, and it may seem that you are on the same side—but you are not. Follow him, he warns, and you will lose all sense of who you are and who your people are.
From this point on, Black Bill makes Manalargena his private quarry. Batman believes this is because bringing down the feared warrior will bring the capturer renown and an especially large bounty, but Black Bill now feels personally threatened by Manalargena, on levels both physical and philosophical. He believes taking him down will quell his internal conflict, which consists of a struggle between the hatred and disgust he has been taught to feel for the very people to whom he belongs by birth, and the knowledge of the “right and true” of the world, which he finds in the promise of love and peace from his unborn son.
The moments when Black Bill dreams of his son are the only moments of peace. Waking, he watches a girl not far out of childhood herself being led about by a rope tied around her throat, carrying her infant son and later being locked in an outhouse to prevent her escape, but also to protect her from threat of gang rape.
He shoots an injured man point-blank in the face, and watches the bits of his skull speckle the rock behind him and his blood soak the earth. When asked by a member of the roving party whether by killing the man he has put himself afoul of the law, Black Bill replies that you can’t murder a black any more than you can murder a cat. The contradiction between the callousness of this statement and the color of Black Bill’s skin strikes his questioner and the reader with equal impact.
But Wilson does not single out Black Bill for his complicity in the genocide of Aboriginal Tasmanians. He links the violence of man to nature, and in doing so implicates everyone whose life depends on the patch of earth they’ve taken from another human being. Which is to say, all of us. He communicates this quite clearly not only through repeated images of blood literally soaking the earth, but by images of men themselves covered in earth.
His chapters often begin and end with the start and close of day. A lunar eclipse precedes an attack on the men by a pack of dogs sent by the Aboriginal tribe the men are hunting. The austerity of Wilson’s prose allows the ugliness of his subject matter to stand out in stark relief. In this landscape, there is no longer a question only of why Black Bill would so willingly kill other black men—the question is instead asked of all of us.
Therein lies the power of Rohan Wilson’s debut novel. There is no redemption. There is no expiation. There is no moral. It is not pleasant or easy to read, and is in fact at times exhausting in its episodic delineation of horrors. From the time of Black Bill’s embarkation on his bloody quest, we know that he is damned whether he lives or dies, because no one can commit such acts of brutality and not be changed himself.
And then there is the question of Bill’s son. In a story about the past, the people of the present are the unborn children, inheriting a culpability that cannot be erased by the passage of time.