Australian author Lenny Bartulin has an eclectic but fascinating output – he began his career with three noir-ish accidental detective books set in Sydney, moved on to Infamy, a historical Western set in Tasmania and followed that up with Fortune, a picaresque historical romp which centred (sort of) around Napoleon. In his latest book, Unearthed, he brings some of these threads together – using what at first appears to be a crime procedural set in Strachan, a small port on the west coast of Tasmania, as the framing for an exploration of post-war Eastern European migration to the island.
Antonia Kovács returns to her home town of Strachan and her ageing ex-policeman father when some human remains are discovered by a hiker. The narrative will check back in with Antonia from time to time but Bartulin has other stories to tell. The first is that of Tom Pilar who has received an inheritance from Slavko Cicak, an old friend of his father. The inheritance includes a sum of money, a house in Queenstown and instructions to bury his ashes in the grave of his daughter. Following this Tom reflects on the memories of both his father and Cicak from when he was a boy. Further back still, Bartulin tells the story of how Cicak came to Australia as part of a wave of Eastern European refugees and then of the tragedy that would come to define his life. Eventually the links to the framing story become clear.
While The Unearthed as some of the trappings of a crime novel, it is really the story of a diverse and complex Tasmanian community. This is a world of hard working in the mines, hard drinking and violence, but also one of love, loyalty and strong community bonds. Bartulin bring readers into this world with luminous prose such as this:
A couple of hours later, he reached the high country, part of the central lakes, Unfurled, rolling landscapes. Endless carpets of button grass, wide plains stretching to distant mountains. Streaked greys and blues, Antarctic whites, yellows, oranges and greens, tremulous, dense… That he was here now, so many years later, it was like jet-lag, a stickiness, a simultaneous presence and absence, like being caught on the tracks of a strange alignment, a borderline.
But this is also about the stories we tell. Those we tell ourselves and those we tell others. Not only stories that make sense of the world but stories that serve to make the unpalatable palatable. How stories:
… were simply either boiling or simmering. They were always on the stove and everybody was always in the soup. To write them, to tell them, was an arbitrary bracketing, a contrived moment… Erin believed that the controlling force of the universe was not ourselves, wasn’t the stories we apparently forged and authored, but rather a universe of infinite narratives shooting around, looking for somewhere to land.
In the end Bartulin circles back, unpicking the narrative and making the various threads of each of the disparate but connected stories relevant to the initial mystery. And in doing so readers will find that he has seemingly effortlessly used his crime narrative to shine a light on a particular time and place and the community that defined it.