“The Sawdust House” by David Whish-Wilson is an interesting historical fiction that tells
the story of a little-known Australian boxer.
It’s 1856 in San Francisco, and James “Yankee” Sullivan is being held in jail by the
Committee of Vigilance, which aims to drive Australian criminals from the town. The trouble
for Sullivan is that just being Australian is enough to be considered a criminal for many of
these men. There’s little chance he can escape execution.
Thomas Crane is a young journalist who’d like to write something more meaningful than the
propaganda his newspaper wants. So while he’ll write the shallow (and not very honest)
pieces his paper wants, he records Sullivan’s story in more detail, with an eye to a later
Sullivan relates his colourful history— born in Ireland, transported to Australia as a convict, and
escaping to America. With few resources to fall back on, he used his body and became a
celebrated boxer at a time when this was illegal.
The novel is told in chapters that alternate the voices of James Sullivan and the reporter, Thomas Crane. Rather than dialogue punctuation, whenever each man speaks, a new chapter begins.
Each chapter is written in the first person, albeit from alternating perspectives. Minimal punctuation is used in Sullivan’s chapters, to represent the way the man himself would write (and speak). This generally works well, allowing the author to gradually draw us into the minds of each man.
However, this rather unusual style is going to discourage some readers. It’s initially a little
confusing, until you realise that it’s alternating between the men — they don’t become distinct
individuals until the novel is well underway. And although the lack of punctuation in Sullivan’s
chapters does ultimately help convey a sense of the man, there are moments when it makes
sentences a little hard to understand.
For many readers, this will be a strong novel. The relationship between the two men grows strong in a relatively short period of time, and readers are carried along with that. Their different personalities and concerns become distinct, and despite the confusion of the early few pages, it’s soon easy to tell who’s “speaking”.
There’s a wealth of interesting historical snippets here. And while some references may be too obscure for some readers, there’s a sense of deep research and knowledge underpinning the novel.
Many readers will find this an absorbing and interesting rendition of a historical figure who’s not well known.
ISBN: 9781760 99037
Copy courtesy of Fremantle Press (2022)
A selection of our Beauty and Lace Club Members are reading The Sawdust House by
David Whish-Wilson. You can read their comments below, or add your own review.
I’ve loved books for as long as I can remember, and I love sharing that joy.
I’ve been an avid reader for as long as I can remember, across all genres. There’s not much I won’t at least try. I’ve been an enthusiastic book reviewer for years. I particularly enjoy discovering writers new to me, and sharing good writing with others.
My career has included time spent writing and editing technical documents, but it’s fiction that really moves me. I’ve reviewed for a number of different outlets over the years, and have been a judge in literary competitions.
I’m now raising little bookworms of my own, which brings a whole new kind of joy to sharing books.
More of my reviews can be found on my review blog www.otherdreamsotherlives.home.blog .