By Merv Lilley
McPhee Gribble. 194 pp., $17.95
Reviewed by John Tognolini
"I'm past seventy. I was, in a sense, born with a task. I was born twenty-one years after the event. I am the only person left on earth who could write about the tragedy that held Australia in thrall and say I know the Gatton killer, that I have known for fifty years who killed Michael, Norah and Ellen Murphy — and the sulky horse — on Boxing Day night of 1898. And even more importantly it seems to me, I am the only person able to give you a skeleton biography of the entire life of the man who did it."
Dorothy Hewett read out this text from Gatton Man at Varuna, the Katoomba writers centre, which hosted the launch of this outstanding book by Merv Lilley in December. Lilley dedicates this book to Hewett, his long-time comrade and companion.
I was introduced to Merv Lilley by the poet Denis Kevans. As I shook Merv's solid 73-year-old hand, I had no idea that his book would be one of the best I've ever read. I say this for his art of storytelling and the political terrain it covers.
Merv puts the romantic Dad and Dave image of the Australian agricultural landscape were it belongs, in the grave. This a story of murder, rape and power over children who can be exploited to the benefit of the head of the family.
It is a folk story/biography of John Lilley, murderer, and a semi-autobiography of Merv Lilley, staunch unionist, communist, sugar cane cutter, miner, timber cutter, drover, wool presser, seafarer and wartime gunner in the militia, who had more chance of being bored to death on an island in the Torres Strait than being shot at by the Japanese.
He proves his father was the Gatton murderer by tearing into the police investigation, which was headed by a policeman whose experience was mainly one of genocide against Aboriginal people in north Queensland. His telling destroys the traditional romantic image of the bush, "the Australian image they want to endure and have nurtured in a literary fashion since the onset of colonisation".
The events are not for the faint hearted. They include the rape of his mother by his father — called "He" throughout the book and other acts of savagery such as He raping his grand-daughter. Told with Merv's brilliant wit it can have you sick to your stomach, crying or laughing your head off.
The other aspect of Gatton Man which generally hasn't been touched on in other reviews is Merv's story of the political battles he fought, including in the unions and in the army.
Gatton Man gives a powerful insight into Australia in the first half of this century. In my opinion it should be compared to A Hundred Years of Solitude, and I look forward to Merv's upcoming novel about seafarers.