The Death of John Lacey, Ben Hobson

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

As I was reading this novel, I was finishing the autobiography THIS MUCH IS TRUE by Miriam Margolyes in audio form and I was struck by the coincidence of some of the things that she says most powerfully and pointedly, about dehumanisation, the utter and abject cruelty of "Empire" and the way that it empowered, and continues to empower, entrenched racism. Add to that the question from Songlines: the Power and Promise, edited by Margo Neale - "What do you need to know to prosper as a people for 65,000 years?" - and you have a review of THE DEATH OF JOHN LACEY. 

Nobody, for a moment, should think that this is not grim, confronting and difficult reading. This is a novel about dehumanisation, dispossession, colonisation and criminal behaviour. In the author's note at the beginning, Hobson says:

In the writing of this novel I have endeavoured to represent the attitudes of the early colonialists as accurately as possible, including their use of derogatory terminology and the expression of, and belief in, harmful ideas.

He then goes on to acknowledge that these attitudes and beliefs are in no way acceptable by contemporary standards, but they persist, maybe slightly buried by cowardice, due, in no small way, to the myths and lies that have fed the "official" narrative. I'm also acutely aware, as a descendent of a colonising family in the Ballaarat region, that these attitudes and this behaviour is part of my inheritance. Which made reading this novel just that bit more visceral, discomforting and frankly distressing. I'm thankful for writers like Hobson, and the Wadawurrung people who assisted in the writing, who make me confront the past, consider the actions of those that came before, and think long, and very hard, about the need for the truth to be told.

At the heart of this novel is the story of brothers Ernst and Joe Montague - same white father, two different race mothers, both dead when the boys were young. Side by side in everything they do, they were raised with cruelty all around them, and it shows in some of their attitudes and behaviours. John Lacey, on the other hand, is at a completely different level altogether, and the brothers, despite many years of interactions, never settle to him.

Lacey is simply greedy and cruel. He's also power hungry, and a terrible crime gives him the means to establish his own town, which he rules with an iron fist and extreme violence. Contrasted against this maniacal, evil character is the quiet and gentle Gilbert, the new preacher in town, a man who ultimately stands up against Lacey. A newcomer, he has no reason to be beholden to Lacey, and a different supporting platform to those that had survived Lacey's purges. Of considerably more interest to this reader was the platform under Ernst and Joe, whose difficult childhood and outlaw roots built within them their own moral code, a mutually supportive connection, transcending race and difference.  

What this novel does particularly well is convey the goldfields as they were. The mud, misery, pain and day to day struggles of life feel very real, as does the initial forays of connection between First Nations people and colonisers. It makes sense that one on one, humanisation was there. Add authority, vested interest and sheer greed, and out rolls the dehumanisation agenda. 

Whilst THE DEATH OF JOHN LACEY is violent, unflinching and confronting, it's also extremely worthwhile reading. It is well past time that the white view of colonisation and dispossession was told truthfully, and there are timely lessons to be learnt about the way that "othering" of groups of people is still used to this day.

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John Lacey's lust for power and gold brings him riches and influence beyond his wildest dreams. Only he knows the terrible crime he committed to attain that wealth. Years later, as Lacey ruthlessly presides over the town he has built and named after himself, no one has the courage to question his power or how he wields it.

Brothers Ernst and Joe Montague are on the run from the law. They land in Lacey's town and commit desperate crimes to avoid capture. Lacey vows retribution and galvanises those in the town to hunt them down. But not everyone is blind to Lacey's evil, and a reckoning is approaching.

A visceral, powerful dissection of dispossession, colonisation and the crimes committed in their name, The Death of John Lacey is also a moving and tender account of the love between brothers and a meditation on the true meaning of mercy and justice.

Review The Death of John Lacey, Ben Hobson
Karen Chisholm
Wednesday, February 15, 2023

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