Leaving Owl Creek, by Sandy Gordon

From the parched and dusty 19th century goldfields of WA, to a shepherd’s hut in the badlands of 21st century Afghanistan — my reading takes me to all kinds of interesting places! Drawing on a wealth of experience after a career in Australian security and intelligence, Sandy Gordon has made an impressive transition from writing academic texts to crafting his first novel.  Leaving Owl Creek is a portrait of changes during mid-20th century Australian society, but the novel captures the reader’s attention immediately with the surreptitious diary of Nicholas MacLean, captive of the Mujahedeen.  Over a tense game of chess, he is trying to bargain for his life with a nostalgic religious zealot: ‘Angrezi, my friend,’ he said, bored with the game, ‘why not take the shahada and then you can be one with us—a true friend. My village, it was so beautiful.  I still remember it like it was yesterday.  People had such dignity.  Widows were looked after.  Orphans protected.  Children obeyed their parents.  We had dignity even though we had nothing, nothing.  None of this intoxication, music, women flaunting themselves.’ He blew a thin stream of smoke, his one indulgence. ‘The old imam, he was a simple man, but a true man of God.  I still remember the first time I attended the little mosque with my father.  Such pride.  All is gone.  Gone when you invaded.  You Westerners.  You are so naïve, thinking you can conquer God with all your technology.’ The entries in this diary punctuate the novel, which moves backwards and forwards in time from Nick’s childhood on a property called Owl Creek, to his conflicted adulthood.  The diary reveals that Nick’s captor is an educated man who has enjoyed, and then rejected the values of the West.  While the captive understands that he is a pawn just like the ones on the chessboard, Nick hopes that shared humanity will rescue him.  But since he is ‘off the radar’ for reasons that are eventually revealed, he does not hope for rescue from the West. Nick’s predicament is a remarkable contrast with the life of privilege into which he was born.  The narrative shifts to his childhood, when he was heir to Owl Creek in outback New South Wales.  His sister Lilly and friend Richard Connolly form a trio in an era when children were free to roam.  But it’s not an indivisible trio: sectarian, class and gender differences impact on their lives even in childhood. Lilly’s ambitions are compromised by her gender; Dick even as a child does not want to be the next generation of Connollys who’ve always worked for the MacLeans; and Nick wants to follow his creative ambitions, not his father’s expectation that he will take over the property in due course.  They become adults in the Sixties, when the Vietnam War ruptured Australian consensus and estranged families; when feminism rewrote the rules of female behaviour; when the divisiveness of sectarianism waned; and when new educational opportunities bridged the chasm between privilege and disadvantage. The author also captures the era of counter cultures encompassing sexual liberation and substance abuse, along with left-wing intellectual subcultures.  Nick joins the libertarian Sydney Push, much to the disapproval of his family, but that’s not all that he does to earn disdain. (Some readers may remember Appo, Recollections of a Member of the Sydney Push, (2009) by Richard Appleton, which described some aspects of the Push, see my review.) Like the best books that chart these tectonic changes, Leaving Owl Creek shows without judgment what Australia used to be without triumphalism about the present. Because the post 9/11 present is shown to be murky in ways that draw on the author’s expertise.  Western cultural and economic power is challenged by fundamentalist Islam, and Nick, shackled in the hut, represents the way both sides have their geopolitical ambitions tested by ambivalent concerns about individuals.  Without being heavy-handed about it, the novel interrogates what is meant by honour and truth.  For Nick’s father, honour is about duty.  It led him and others of his generation to the horrors of WW2, and it means persisting on a drought-affected farm that was never really viable because a man’s duty is to work for his family.  It’s Nick’s refusal to participated in the Vietnam War that is the catalyst for an irrevocable breach with his parents, but the philosophical and political divide between them is wider than that.  Rick, OTOH, confronts the pragmatics of power and the betrayals it confers: should he maintain his commitment to un-electable left-wing Catholicism or ‘enter the Protestant tent’ where the power lay and work from within? Of all the interesting aspects to this narrative, Lilly’s fate is the one that is most ambiguous.  She transcends the expectations into which she is born, and she is a survivor, but at what cost?  She compromises her integrity and risks her profession for love, but like many women of her generation she doesn’t ‘have it all’. 

Leaving Owl Creek, by Sandy Gordon

From the parched and dusty 19th century goldfields of WA, to a shepherd’s hut in the badlands of 21st century Afghanistan — my reading takes me to all kinds of interesting places!

Drawing on a wealth of experience after a career in Australian security and intelligence, Sandy Gordon has made an impressive transition from writing academic texts to crafting his first novel.  Leaving Owl Creek is a portrait of changes during mid-20th century Australian society, but the novel captures the reader’s attention immediately with the surreptitious diary of Nicholas MacLean, captive of the Mujahedeen.  Over a tense game of chess, he is trying to bargain for his life with a nostalgic religious zealot:

‘Angrezi, my friend,’ he said, bored with the game, ‘why not take the shahada and then you can be one with us—a true friend. My village, it was so beautiful.  I still remember it like it was yesterday.  People had such dignity.  Widows were looked after.  Orphans protected.  Children obeyed their parents.  We had dignity even though we had nothing, nothing.  None of this intoxication, music, women flaunting themselves.’

He blew a thin stream of smoke, his one indulgence.

‘The old imam, he was a simple man, but a true man of God.  I still remember the first time I attended the little mosque with my father.  Such pride.  All is gone.  Gone when you invaded.  You Westerners.  You are so naïve, thinking you can conquer God with all your technology.’

The entries in this diary punctuate the novel, which moves backwards and forwards in time from Nick’s childhood on a property called Owl Creek, to his conflicted adulthood.  The diary reveals that Nick’s captor is an educated man who has enjoyed, and then rejected the values of the West.  While the captive understands that he is a pawn just like the ones on the chessboard, Nick hopes that shared humanity will rescue him.  But since he is ‘off the radar’ for reasons that are eventually revealed, he does not hope for rescue from the West.

Nick’s predicament is a remarkable contrast with the life of privilege into which he was born.  The narrative shifts to his childhood, when he was heir to Owl Creek in outback New South Wales.  His sister Lilly and friend Richard Connolly form a trio in an era when children were free to roam.  But it’s not an indivisible trio: sectarian, class and gender differences impact on their lives even in childhood. Lilly’s ambitions are compromised by her gender; Dick even as a child does not want to be the next generation of Connollys who’ve always worked for the MacLeans; and Nick wants to follow his creative ambitions, not his father’s expectation that he will take over the property in due course.  They become adults in the Sixties, when the Vietnam War ruptured Australian consensus and estranged families; when feminism rewrote the rules of female behaviour; when the divisiveness of sectarianism waned; and when new educational opportunities bridged the chasm between privilege and disadvantage. The author also captures the era of counter cultures encompassing sexual liberation and substance abuse, along with left-wing intellectual subcultures.  Nick joins the libertarian Sydney Push, much to the disapproval of his family, but that’s not all that he does to earn disdain. (Some readers may remember Appo, Recollections of a Member of the Sydney Push, (2009) by Richard Appleton, which described some aspects of the Push, see my review.)

Like the best books that chart these tectonic changes, Leaving Owl Creek shows without judgment what Australia used to be without triumphalism about the present. Because the post 9/11 present is shown to be murky in ways that draw on the author’s expertise.  Western cultural and economic power is challenged by fundamentalist Islam, and Nick, shackled in the hut, represents the way both sides have their geopolitical ambitions tested by ambivalent concerns about individuals.  Without being heavy-handed about it, the novel interrogates what is meant by honour and truth.  For Nick’s father, honour is about duty.  It led him and others of his generation to the horrors of WW2, and it means persisting on a drought-affected farm that was never really viable because a man’s duty is to work for his family.  It’s Nick’s refusal to participated in the Vietnam War that is the catalyst for an irrevocable breach with his parents, but the philosophical and political divide between them is wider than that.  Rick, OTOH, confronts the pragmatics of power and the betrayals it confers: should he maintain his commitment to un-electable left-wing Catholicism or ‘enter the Protestant tent’ where the power lay and work from within?

Of all the interesting aspects to this narrative, Lilly’s fate is the one that is most ambiguous.  She transcends the expectations into which she is born, and she is a survivor, but at what cost?  She compromises her integrity and risks her profession for love, but like many women of her generation she doesn’t ‘have it all’.  She holds onto the farm, but the question of its viability for the next generation represented by Olivia, remains, as does the moral authority of its prior ownership.

The novel also interrogates the legacy of this generation, and what is meant by truth.  Highly recommended!

Publication day is February 19th, but you can pre-order with a $5 discount from the publisher’s website.

You can also listen to an interview with the author here.

Author: Sandy Gordon
Title: Leaving Owl Creek
Cover design by Mountain Brown Press and Haddie Davies
Publisher: Finlay Lloyd, 2022
ISBN: 9780994516565, pbk., 338 pages
Review copy courtesy of Finlay Lloyd