“Perhaps the name that matters is not the one we were born to but the one we choose for ourselves.”
The blurb of this book caught my attention first. The story is based around a true event – the discovery of human remains at a campsite called ‘The Sinkings’ near Albany, Western Australia in 1882. The body had been hacked to pieces, so the initial post mortem had only parts of the body to go by, and it was determined from the size and shape of the pelvis that the body was female. A short time later, when the head was discovered, it was identified as ‘Little Jock’ a male ex-convict.
So how did a male ex-convict’s remains get confused as female?
When the main character of The Sinkings, Willa, comes across the story, she believes she knows exactly why Little Jock’s remains were considered female to start with.
Willa has lost her child. But in what is simultaneously the most heart-wrenching, and the most hopeful loss for a mother – Willa’s daughter is still alive. Willa is tormented by choices of her past, choices that brought about this disconnection between parent and child. Willa’s daughter, Imogene, was born intersex – with one testicle, and one ovary. On the advice of doctors and encouragement from her parents and husband, Willa consents to surgery that will give her child the look of a girl, a daughter, Imogene.
But the surgery goes wrong, and a simple ‘fix’ that should be over while Imogene is still an infant, before she would ever have memory of the event, leads to ongoing procedures and examinations, leading well into childhood. The problem is compounded for young Imogene, when, again following the advice of doctors, none of these procedures are explained, and Imogene grows up into a young woman, not understanding either the events of the past, or why she has to take a concoction of pills on a daily basis.
So when Willa reads the tale of Little Jock, she knows why the body was initially determined to be female. Little Jock was just like her daughter, born over a century earlier, in a time when surgery was not an option, and the only chance of surviving in a harsh and misunderstanding society was to hide as best you could.
After losing of her daughter, Willa develops almost an obsession with Little Jock’s story and sets out to find out all she can about the convict.
Alternating between Little Jock’s story in the past, and Willa’s story in the present, The Sinkings explores the choices we make in the life we are given.
It is beautifully written, capturing so well the heart-wrenching choices Willa is forced to make, and expressing a mother’s uncertainty, fear and guilt about the choices she has made for her child. Little Jock’s story is equally well told – raised as a daughter during the famine in Ireland, Little Jock takes on a male persona as he is adopted into a family who have just lost their son. His humiliation at having to reveal himself during convict examinations is palpable, as is the fear of rejection, and the suffering he experiences as he survives life by hiding, by pulling away from human contact lest someone discover and spread his secret to all who’ll hear.
As a historian, I loved the description of Willa’s experiences in searching for details of Jock – of having to wait for information, of the painful, and sometimes fruitless searching through page after page of old curly handwriting, of finding that elusive piece of information – that one gem among hundreds of pages of dross.
I highly recommend reading this story, if you only read a book a year, read this one!