The Albatross Necklace - An Introduction

The Albatross Necklace by Peter Purchase is a stunning debut for this West Australian author, who entertains his readers with an irresistible epic novel examining two intriguing periods in history, the Golden Age of Dutch global expansion in the years 1690-1720 and the British settlement of the Swan River Colony in Western Australia in 1829-1840. An imaginative fictional novel drawing extensively on historical fact, it is a work as meticulously researched as it is fluently written by a storyteller who keeps you turning the page.

The year is 1997, the place is Fremantle in Western Australia and Lennard Currie, a charismatic part-indigenous glass sculptor, is engaged in constructing a monumental cenotaph to his Aboriginal forebears who lost their lives resisting British settlement 200 years before. On New Year’s Eve of that year, Lennard invites Stefan Novak, a brilliant and innovative glass technician down on his luck, to collaborate in creating the gigantic sculpture. With a 4-year deadline and against what seem insurmountable odds, they bring the project to completion on time late in 2000, just prior to the Sydney Olympics.

Lennard has traced his European ancestry to Gerrit de Waal, senior carpenter aboard the Dutch cargo ship Zuytdorp, who survived the horrors of its sinking in 1712 during winter storms that drove the ship onto towering cliffs at Kalbarri, 600 kilometres north of Fremantle. While working on the sculpture, Lennard relates Gerrit de Waal’s fascinating life story to Stefan, culminating in his rescue by Aboriginal warriors of the Malgana family group living in Shark Bay. Displaying his extensive research notes, charts and photographs and describing his visits to the Zeeland city of Middelburg in the Netherlands where Gerrit grew up, Lennard convinces Stefan to co-write Gerrit’s biography. The challenging undertaking has far reaching consequences for Stefan.

The Albatross Necklace is a novel in 2 parts. Part I - The Man who lit the Flame, is set in Western Australia, with the port city of Fremantle and the wild coastline north of Kalbarri the principal backdrops. While the suspenseful action is centred on the creation of the controversial cenotaph, the reader’s focus shifts occasionally into the past as the gripping personal stories of the two glass artists unfold in seamless flashbacks. Part II - Survivors of the Storm, transports the reader back 300 years into the thriving city of Middelburg and conjures up Gerrit de Waal’s life, recreating place and period with vivid immediacy. Eye-catching descriptions and captivating, fully realised characters draw the reader along as Gerrit’s story progresses from the Dutch capture of the Portuguese carrack the Santiago off the island of St Helena in 1602, the very week the Dutch East India Company (the VOC) was conceived, to the building of the Zuytdorp in the Middelburg dockyards in 1701 and its disastrous end on the Kalbarri cliffs in 1712. The intense clash of cultures and language that erupts when the survivors meet the Malgana family group after the sinking is especially riveting, calling for all Purchase’s storytelling skills . . . in fact his use of Malgana and other languages throughout the novel lends authenticity to the text.

This is a big, bold book. While the scope and sweep of the interwoven storylines are broad and ambitious, the focus remains clear and intimate, allowing each fascinating character to share his or her story. Displaying a commendable mix of deep research, lively imagination and writing that is often exhilarating, Albatross Necklace is an impressive and very readable achievement.

First published on 12th December 2012, it celebrates the tri-centenary of the sinking of the Zuytdorp.

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