Musk & Byrne, by Fiona Capp

Released from her trance, Jemma drops the charcoal and tosses her sketchbook aside. She hurries down the ridge and across the rocky ground towards the huddled family, only to find herself unwanted; an outsider at the closing of ranks. The reproach in their eyes says it all. She can see it is futile to protest. She has dared treat this freak event, this near-fatal caprice of nature, as a fit subject for art. How can she explain? Reluctantly, she returns to her satchel, packs her sketchbook away and melts back into the forest.

Following the death of her beloved father, Jemma Byrne moves to the goldfields town of Wombat Town, seeking to build a new life and develop her skills as a painter. But after she witnesses (and draws) a young girl’s brush with death, she gains a reputation as an uncaring, strange woman. She marries an Italian-Swiss dairy farm, but her reputation doesn’t improve much, especially when a wronged suitor from her past comes to town. When tragedy strikes, Jemma finds she must live life on the run, and her bad reputation grows. Soon, she is known as the female bushranger Musk who, with her accomplice Byrne, is blamed for a range of crimes throughout Victoria.

Musk and Byrne is a beautifully wrought tale of love, life and self-belief set in Victoria in 1868. Jemma Musk sees the world though the eyes of an artist, and as such often finds herself at odds with more practical people. Even her husband Gotardo, who is proud of her talent, struggles to understand her compulsion to paint even when there is other work to be done. The incident early in the novel where she sketches a girl being carried by the wind almost to her death, rather than put down her sketchpad and spring to the girl’s aid, is something she can’t explain, and which haunts her when she becomes the suspect in a later event.

As well as being a historical novel, this is also a tale of individuality and conformity, and of society’s tendency to judge individuals who don’t conform. It is also a story of love and of survival.

A wonderful read.

Musk & Byrne, by Fiona Capp
Allen & Unwin, 2008

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