Rosetta Allan’s debut novel Purgatory is one of those books that draws you into its exquisitely crafted, atmospheric and entirely believable world within the first couple of pages. The time is 1865, the place is Otahuhu, New Zealand – back then just a small outpost designed to create a boundary between the slowly expanding settler’s Auckland, and the edge of the Waikato, still protected by King Country Maori.
Here we meet the Finnegans: Ma, Thomas, Ben, and the narrator, a young boy named John. They are part of a large family of working class, first-generation Irish settlers. They are also dead – murdered by “him”, an unnamed man, who has remained in their cottage and who is now being watched by his victims as they spend their days in purgatory – a state of waiting, firstly for someone to discover that they have been murdered, and secondly for the finding of their physical bodies, so they can move on to the kind of heaven that they, as Irish Catholics, would have expected to be waiting for them.
The other strand of the narrative takes the reader even further back in time and place, to 1847 Killarney, Ireland, a land ravaged by British colonisation, death and the potato famine. Young James Stack and his family endure the hardships like so many other peasants of those days did, and do what they have to in order to survive. When James is tasked with taking his sister Aileen to Dublin to find her a job, and she is arrested and deported to “Van Diemen’s land” for attempting to steal a lace handkerchief, guilt and grief compel James to join the 65th British Regiment and follow her across the oceans to Australia.
Rosetta Allan, who is also the author of several collections of poetry, began to write this novel when she stumbled across charts of her own family tree, and spotted the names of Catherine, Thomas, Ben and John Finnegan with the note “murdered” beside them. Her research led her to the discovery of the then infamous 1865 “Otahuhu murders”, which had been documented in New Zealand papers and archives from that time, and which prompted her to put together the pieces of her own family history within the context of those murders.
Purgatory is a unique and powerful first novel. The depictions of the main characters, John Finnegan and James Stack are raw, poignant and compassionate – their lives run parallel to each other towards the inevitable tragedy of the murders. Rosetta Allan has a flair for depicting the little nuances that bring all her characters and settings to life – and so we see the bleak Irish landscape as if we are there; we feel the oppressive, “doldrums” heat of the boat “the Lancashire Witch” on its way from Ireland to Australia; and we want to reassure and comfort the young boy John, as he wanders around his old home – “there but not there” – stuck in Purgatory.
In her acknowledgements Rosetta Allan quotes Pope John Paul II, who stated that “heaven and hell are primarily eternal states of consciousness rather than geographical places of later reward or punishment.” Her novel explores this concept with great skill, and leaves the reader feeling like a deer in caught in car headlights – you know what is coming but you can’t look away.