Thicker Than Water by Cal Flyn
When Angus McMillan, a “shrewd” young man from Skye, was dispossessed by the Highland Clearances of the 1830s, he “bought a passage on a ship bound for Australia”, said Melanie Reid in The Times. There, he became a “great man”, helping to found the state of Victoria and exploring Gippsland, a fertile region favoured by pioneers. Little wonder, then, that when the young journalist Cal Flyn first discovered that McMillan was her great-great-great uncle, she felt a “thrill of pride”. Yet when she “delved deeper”, the picture grew “dark”: she learnt he had massacred hundreds of Aborigines, all but wiping out one tribe – the Gunai. She found it “unthinkable” that a “pious” Scotsman, who had been displaced by “bullying” aristocrats, could inflict “even more terrible grief” on another vulnerable people. Flyn gave up her London life and set out to retrace McMillan’s journey. The resulting book is “stunning”: it reads “like classy, compelling fiction”.
Flyn shows great skill in capturing the “strangeness” of the antipodean landscape, said Elizabeth Lowry in The Guardian. She is “lyrically responsive” to the fauna and flora – the wombats with their “humanoid waddle”, the layered rocks “delicate as millefeuille”. However, her encounters with Aborigines are “bruising”: one tribal elder pushes her to agree that McMillan’s crimes are “in you, in your blood”. Although at first Flyn agrees, she ends up rejecting the “fashionable” notion of “intergenerational guilt”, said Allan Massie in The Scotsman. Which is just as well: it’s “absurd” to feel responsible for our ancestors’ crimes. Yet her intelligent and evocative book offers a “salutary lesson”, which is that we Scots, who are so fond of seeing ourselves as “victims”, have often made others the victims of our “greed and ambitions”.