Book Review: Meg Keneally’s Fled is a rich historical fiction, with a basis in almost unbelievable fact

Poor and hungry, fisherman’s daughter Jenny Trelawney is forced into thievery. But when the young highway woman is caught and transported to Australia, a fresh set of problems presents itself. Sickness, famine, and dangerous fellow convicts – male and female alike – all threaten her growing family. So Jenny hatches a plan to escape. But who will risk their lives on the word of a thief? Worse, a woman?

With a compelling and beautifully crafted lead, Fled absolutely shines. Jenny is so many things – determined, driven, brave as all hell – and while her role as a mother is incredibly important, she’s allowed to simply be long before that. Clever and intuitive, Fled features scene after scene of Jenny finding ways around the accepted order of things, and making crafty attempts to convince people of the validity of her ideas – even if it means pretending it wasn’t her idea at all.

There’s a gorgeous simplicity to the writing, as down to earth as Jenny herself. It does mean that Fled occasionally leans toward feeling like a list of events, but just when it might cross that line, author Meg Keneally is ready to balance things out, releasing a little more of Jenny’s character to resurrect the story.

It’s worth noting that the inevitable interactions with Aboriginal people within the novel are kept to a minimum – enough to condemn the actions of the British settlers and to provide an action sequence or two during Jenny’s escape – and for the most part seem sensitively handled (though please feel free to contradict me!). They’re shown as defenders, rather than aggressors, and many are open to helping the newcomers. This includes Mawberry, who aids Jenny when scurvy and, later, starvation threatens the fledgling penal colony.

Common ground between the two women is found, both as fisher-women and mothers, and it’s likely just enough to save Mawberry from sailing too close to the “Magical Negro” stereotype, with her local plant knowledge and guidance.

It’s also an interesting jumping off point for examining Jenny and Dan’s relationship, one that is well explored throughout the novel and at times is key to the plot’s progression. Where Mawberry’s partner acknowledges her help within their family and wider community (it is he who sends Mawberry to Jenny in the first place), Dan does not do the same for Jenny. Though at the heart of the marriage there’s a definite tenderness – one that belies the convenience that first motivated it – it’s often strained by Dan’s insecurities and Jenny’s unwillingness to hide her capabilities. Sound familiar? Fled might be set more than two centuries ago, but there’s a message in there that will resonate all too strongly with many women reading today.

Based on the true story of famous convict and escapee Mary Bryant, Fled offers a wonderful opportunity to bring to life a woman historically silenced due to both her illiteracy and her gender. Keneally hasn’t exactly put words into Bryant’s mouth with her rich and well-researched novel, but she has handed us Jenny Trelawney, and it’s every bit as exciting, heartbreaking, and powerful as I’d imagine the real thing to be.

Meg Keneally’s Fled is out now, published by Echo.

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my review
View my review policies here

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