Review: Batavia

BataviaBatavia by Peter FitzSimons
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An extraordinary piece of research by Peter FitzSimons. Just like he did with Nancy Wake, Tobruk, and many other histories, he has breathed life into fascinating events from Australia’s past. FitzSimons is a remarkable storyteller. It’s quite a feat to keep the reader on the edge of their seat when they already know the outcome: he has achieved this with most of his other books, none more so than with Batavia.

Much of the characterisation must be merely speculation. The only surviving written record from those in the event is Pelsaert’s journal, yet FitzSimons achieves fleshed-out, believable characters. For the main protagonists, he occasionally draws their dialogue from the journal, but otherwise the reconstructions rely on the author’s interpretations of patchy historical documents.

Why not five stars? I think it is easily four-and-a-half, but I found some of the blood-drenched descriptions a little gratuitous. There is a lot of killing in the this book – just as there was in the real event – but the detailed accounts of the murder methods, along with the physiological descriptions of the effects on flesh and bone, made the book hard going at times. Plenty of readers will prefer the gory depictions, but I think there are more than enough to convey the horror of what took place. One other complaint is that a few times the author steps out of character as contemporary narrator, and uses a modern expression or cliché: this weakens the sense of place that he has created.

There are redemptive elements, as I believe there must be in any chilling account of death and tyrany. The heroism of Hayes, the dignity of Lucretia, and even the dogged perseverance of Pelsaert give the book a sense of balance, as well as elevating it above the sanguine eye-for-an-eye vengeance in the punishment of the guilty. Above all, the quality of this book, despite my minor misgivings, convinces me to read much more from this highly-skilled and meticulous researcher.

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