Reviews / February 2010 (Issue 10)

Reviving the Past: John Biggs' Tin Dragons

by Moira Moody


John Biggs, Tin Dragons, Maygog Publishing, 2008. 266 pgs.

Tin Dragons is Australian author John Biggs' third novel, a tale focusing on the lives of those who lived in and around the Tasmanian tin mines of the 19th century. At that time, a large number of Chinese laborers migrated to northeast Tasmania to work in the mines in order to earn enough to start or support families in China. When many of these settlers returned to China, the stories of their time in Australia were lost. However, in this novel, Biggs recreates this hidden past for us through colorful characters and fun, fast storytelling.

The structure of Biggs' novel is unconventional, setting the stage for the type of narration that he uses consistently throughout the novel. The first feature to note is that the point of view shifts between three main characters and occasionally even to minor characters. The majority of the novel is told in the third person, focusing on either the protagonist, Jack Yang, or his rival, Wu Ying. Another large portion of the novel is the diary of the major female character within the novel, Terry Conway. The second obvious feature of the book is its pacing. The novel is 266 pages long, but it consists of 58 chapters, with individual chapters averaging three pages. This makes for expansive narration and fast-paced, episodic storytelling that is reminiscent of the fiction of the 19th century, the same period which the novel inhabits.

Biggs nicely captures immigrant life in Tasmania, in which each settler not only finds a world of new experiences, but is also pursued by the past that led him or her there in the first place. The novel begins during the Tai Ping rebellion, a failed mid-19th century insurgency of mostly Hakka rebels who revolted against the Qing dynasty. Wu is a Hakka soldier who joins his company in the general looting which took place following the failure of the rebellion. After killing an entire family on a looting spree, he (ironically) spares one "egg," Jack, the young boy who becomes the novels' protagonist. This terrorizing opening scene gives us the background to the subsequent struggle that evolves as the two men meet again years later as tin miners in Tasmania. Jack has emigrated hoping to find a new life unencumbered by the painful memories of the past, while Wu has set out to fleece the new territory, following criminal lessons learned in China. When the two characters finally reencounter each other, Jack sees "the same wicked sneer in the sunken slits he'd seen fourteen years ago" and recognizes his enemy. Soon it becomes clear to both characters that their plans for success in Tasmania will not be so easily achieved.

The struggle between Wu Ying and Jack Yang is balanced by the introduction of a third main character, Terry Conway, who adds a comic/romantic thread to the story. Terry is a white prostitute who goes to tin country to get in on the money, but also to find a husband. As she writes "a nice, young Chinaman would be just the ticket." Diary entries like these are both fun and frustrating. Private confessions should be by definition intimate, but after reading Terry's plan to marry a "Chinaman" her motivations remained unclear to me. As egalitarian as Tasmanian society might be, it is clear from the first pages of the book that Chinese are thought of as an underclass, and particularly Chinese tin miners. Terry reads about this social situation herself in the library, but it is never satisfactorily explained why she then decides to leave the city and marry a "celestial." She has a rather comfortable life in the city, but does not seem to think twice about how it might be to live in meager circumstances in the bush.

There are also some technical issues with the diary format of her narration. Part of her narrative feels like third person fitted uncomfortably into the diary form: it strains credibility that a diarist could recount so much dialogue from memory or that entries would end on cliff-hangers. A diarist sits down to write the entirety of a day, or describe a feeling or event. Instead, Terry's diaries sometimes contain three entries in a single day, each ending with a suspenseful one-sentence stand-alone paragraph.

Similarly, some of the cultural insights that Biggs gives us seem like they were forced into the narrative. The minor characters are sometimes touching—as in the gay gardener who dies for love in one of the subplots—but other times feel contrived. Take for example, May, the Chinese wife of one of the miners, a character who Terry seeks out in order to "deliver some cheer-up to the poor child if [she] could." Their ensuing friendship is unconnected to the main plot and seems driven by Terry's pity and morbid curiosity. I expected this thread to connect more significantly to the main action of the novel, but it appears that this friendship exists solely so that Terry can give the young woman lessons on how to enjoy herself during sex, a device which allows the author to explore 19th century pseudo-scientific ideas about midwifery. Terry even enters whole paragraphs from health manuals into her diary. It is unclear why she would bother, except to serve the author's desire to include this information within his narrative.

However, there are other places where Biggs very aptly describes how people in the 19th century negotiated the problems of sexual attraction. In a particularly touching and hilarious scene, Terry tries to become intimate with Jack while still keeping a plausibly formal front by teaching him the English words for parts of the female anatomy. When he recoils at her advances, she responds, "It is called a breast, B-R-E-A-S-T. Now write that down." Jack's problem with sex is the most persistent mystery within the novel, and Biggs explores his issues with intimacy in a way that is both thoughtful and funny.

Terry's diaries are also engaging because of their language play. Terry often flits from colloquialisms to an affected, upper-class air; both the character and author have a good ear for the humor embedded in these shifts. For example in one entry, Terry unsuccessfully needles a friend for information about what she correctly guesses is a budding romance, writing that "She was unforthcoming … upon my making gentle enquiries." What works so well within passages like these is that Biggs makes Terry conscious of her own airs. Similarly, when Terry endeavors to win Jack's love, she writes, "we would float upwards to meet the immortals; our joyous shouts would make the heavens positively ring as he voided his essence into my heaving, panting, eager body!" This effusion is absolutely overwrought, purple prose, but she follows it up with "so thought I," a nice touch which gives Terry a lovely sense of her own folly. One of the most endearing aspects of this larger-than-life character is that she never takes herself too seriously.

All in all, Biggs' novel is extremely well-researched, and its many subplots are woven deftly and lightly together to form a complete story which also has the feel of a collection of tales. I did want some aspects of the narration and of the characters more fully rendered, but the redeeming quality of the book is its voice—Terry's carefree voice is not that far away from Biggs'. The short, action-filled chapters make for a fast-paced narrative, and the book’s humour keeps its wealth of historical information from being too burdensome. With his careful work, Biggs creates a chapter of Tasmanian history that might otherwise have been lost.

Editors' note: John Biggs's poem "His Old Man Suit" was published in issue #2 of Cha.

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