Master of my Fate by Sienna Brown, Penguin Random House Australia, 2019.
I found Sienna Brown’s debut novel riveting. I was completely swept up in William Buchanan’s journey from Jamaica, where he was born into slavery, to his arrival as a convict in Sydney in 1835. I relished the early chapters as Brown carefully recreated the rhythm and characters of the plantation. Then I couldn’t put the book down as William entered adulthood and began to buck against the chains of his enslavement. We know from the outset that he will be sent to Australia, but I desperately wanted to know whether William tasted emancipation in Jamaica first and why he was transported. What became of his family? How did his life in colonial New South Wales turn out?
The novel is based on a real man and a true story. When Sienna Brown came across William in the records at Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks, she recognised a kindred spirit, a lost man far from home. She too was far from her island home. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Brown moved first to Canada and then to Sydney. William’s story resonated with her own feelings of displacement.
She tells William’s story in three parts. Part One recounts his childhood and early adult life on Rock Pleasant, a sugar plantation. In Part Two, we follow William to Ginger Hill plantation, after Rock Pleasant (and its enslaved inhabitants) is sold. Finally, we travel to the colony of New South Wales with William on board a convict transport—his life in the ‘new world’ is also action-packed.
Brown narrates her novel through William’s eyes and in his voice. I’ll admit this voice grated with me initially, but as I became accustomed to it I recognised in it the voices I had read and ‘heard’ in my own research on Jamaica. In a post-script to the novel, Brown explains her process in attempting to emulate the plantation patois. She acknowledges that she has perhaps only partially succeeded, but she describes how she put her own twist on it, to allow William’s story to shine. As a novelist, I think we can allow her some leeway. Ultimately, the narrative voice works well.
Through William’s eyes, we witness the horror of plantation slavery and experience the intense inner conflict between survival instinct and compliance with the brutal rhythms of the plantation. But we see too, the desire for personal freedom—whether in a quotidian sense within the confines of the plantation, or the flight-of-fancy of true emancipation. Stories of runaway slaves, and the maroon Robert McKellar give us a glimpse of the possibility of escape, although perhaps not of true freedom.
Brown accurately evokes the minutiae of plantation life—the sound of ‘shell-blow’ that marked time; the alternating seasons of sugar cultivation; the remnants of African traditions and spirituality. Also the power dynamics at play within the enslaved community; between those who work in the Great House and those out in the fields. We even glimpse the conflict between the resident planter and his more liberal relatives visiting from Britain. We see, too, the slaves’ living arrangements and the nature of sexual relationships on the plantation—within the enslaved and coloured communities, as well as the planter urge to capitalise on his female property for economic gain.
Brown’s research on the wider context of Jamaica (and of course, Sydney) is evident throughout. I particularly enjoyed the way she weaved William’s story with the wider history of both places. In Jamaica the novel encompasses the spread of Christianity, hints at the debate over emancipation in ‘the Mother Country,’ and the influence of the charismatic Native Baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe. In Sydney, Brown beautifully evokes the emerging European city and the wilds of the surrounding bush that now heaves with traffic.
Finally, Brown respects her characters. Relationships are not sentimentalised, but nor is life an unrelenting horror. She hints at her own answer to the question of how the characters in her novel (and the real people that the story reflects) continually picked themselves up and carried on.
I recommend the book. If there is something I would have liked Brown to do differently it is to spend a little more time on the Australian part of William’s story—Part Three feels somewhat rushed in comparison to the pace of Parts One and Two, and we see less of the historical backdrop than we do of Jamaica. But this is a minor criticism, the book is a wonderful debut achievement.