Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Reviewed by Kirsten Rawlings
In Nicholas Shakespeare’s eyes, Tasmania is a secret and rarely visited place, ‘a byword for remoteness’. His comprehensive biography In Tasmania paints this outpost as a magnet for the lost, a place to be renewed or be forgotten. From the burgeoning towns of Launceston and Hobart, to the fertile northeast and the windy and bleak west coast, Shakespeare reveals the hardships and inspirations of its inhabitants over the centuries, suffusing each corner with history and beauty.
He begins with European settlement, told through the story of Anthony Fenn Kemp, the ‘father of Tasmania’ and an incorrigible cad. This was a man who bolted through his inheritance in two years before charging to the colonies, where he continued to bully, steal – and to father many, many children (the real source of the nickname). Of Tasmania’s Aboriginal history, not a lot is preserved and only a small amount of that can be celebrated. Notable events were all tragic: the Black Line, an attempt to round up the island’s Indigenous inhabitants, the shipping of the remaining Aborigines to Flinders Island, and the sad alcoholic end of Truganini.
The news is better for immigrants. Says one traveller: ‘The air of Tasmania was to that of England as cream to skimmed milk’. Then as now: a 1970 study did in fact judge Tasmania’s air the cleanest in the world.
Shakespeare is wildly successful at mythologising the island. Could it be possible that the elusive Tasmanian tiger still lives? He dispels cynicism with some pretty good evidence, such as that most sightings go unreported because people fear they’ll get a reputation for being crazy, and because they want to protect their favourite local spot from being overrun. But it’s not just logic that convinces: Shakespeare perpetuates the idea that Tasmania is such a magical mysterious place that anything can happen – and he pays this all off very nicely by discovering that he is related to almost half the characters in the book, from the father of Tasmania himself (though no doubt Shakespeare shares this glory with thousands) to a couple of spinsters who have never been further than Launceston.
Shakespeare’s love for his subject is clear in every passage of this book. He manages to give the impression that everything leads to, or can be traced back to, Tasmania. I, for one, am sold: this is one of the most entertaining histories I’ve ever read.
Kirsten Rawlings is a Lonely Planet Managing Editor for guidebooks in the Australasia/Pacific region. Her travels in Tasmania were particularly sweet because it reminded her of her homeland of New Zealand.
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