Author of Backwaters and Mosquito Creek
The beer garden at Camberwell restaurant Nataraj is full of people basking in the recent sunshine. It’s pretty far removed from the flood-ravaged goldfields that form the backdrop to Robert Engwerda’s most recent historical crime novel, Mosquito Creek. There’re no treacherous police commissioners, no penitent troopers or malicious miners, just middle-class citizens having beers topped up by pimply-faced waiters. Robert Engwerda seems at ease amongst this jigsaw of sun-seekers. Just over fifty years old, he has the easy pleasantry of a favoured teacher.
It’s not surprising.
‘In a former life I was an English teacher, though history has always been a passion’ he admits when asked how he managed to take the Victorian goldfields of 1855, and imbue them with such insight and authority. The seed of this passion was first stirred when he joined family friends and amateur archaeologists on a dig at the ruins of a settler’s hut near Colac. After unearthing aboriginal artefacts, Engwerda says ‘I was fascinated with the past and fascinated with these people who must’ve been here before and what happened to them.’
While the past serves as the background for Mosquito Creek, and is paramount to Engwerda, it’s not just the location –which he sees ‘a wall paper on which you post everything else’ – that’s important. Much like his Miles Franklin Award long-listed debut Backwaters, Engwerda’s new book focuses thematically on the past. The two main characters, remittance man Commissioner Charles Stanfield and ex-convict turned police Sergeant Niall Kennedy, are both grappling with their English heritage while trying to scratch out an existence in the unforgiving landscape of colonial Australia. ‘They’re both effectively exiles from their countries,’ Engwerda says.
‘When Stanfield comes to Australia, he’s very insular, defensive, all he wants is to get back to England, while Kennedy… starts to embrace the country, he tries to understand it, even though it’s quite a harsh terrain and climate, he starts to understand there’s a beauty in it as well.’
That beauty is apparent throughout Engwerda’s prose. His descriptions of the landscape seem stolen straight from memory. Infused with a foreboding gloom that engulfs the pages like the fog suffocating the goldfield, the book occasionally reads like gothic fiction. As he states, ‘the environment says a lot about characters, how they respond to it and the people within,’ which he uses expertly to explore the darker depths of humanity.
Though much of the intrigue stems from Stanfield’s obsessive pursuit to reclaim a lost family relic, at the cost of those around him, Engwerda is eager to make the reader comprehend the Commissioner. Mosquito Creek asks us to understanding the actions of men, not judge. ‘I try to be sympathetic to all the characters,’ he explains.
One particular review suggested that Engwerda was mocking Stanfield, which he was ‘horrified to read because it certainly wasn’t my intention at all.’ He elaborates, saying ‘no one is intrinsically bad. With Stanfield and Kennedy both, I wanted to understand why they are the way they are and that’s what you’re trying to tease out’ through the narrative.
The book itself seems to have a long past. ‘I actually wrote it when I was about 29, it’s been with me for a long time in a lot of different incarnations.’ Originally drawing influence from Hemmingway and Patrick White, Engwerda explains that earlier versions of Mosquito Creek were ‘understated [like Hemmingway] until people told me you’ve got to spell it out a bit more, that’s a juggling act, you don’t want to spell out every single thing.’ But he didn’t want to emulate White either, and now his prose teeters somewhere in between. Lyrically eloquent but crafted with a sense of immediacy and a pared back suggestiveness that allows the reader to interpret the action with something of themselves, as with most skilled writing, less is more.
Not that Engwerda is stuck in the past. Next up is a contemporary novel set in Melbourne concerning a man coming to terms with the death of his wife and a collection of short stories. One of the few authors I’ve met who heralds it, Engwerda is also looking forward to the digital future of publishing.
‘You can value add whether its fiction or non-fiction, you can do an interview, audio visual… you can have the directors cut version if you like – the chapters that got chucked out. That appeals to me quite a bit,’ he smiles.