The Sooterkin by Tom Gilling

Whenever I get a chance I like to stop by the discount bookstore at the outlet mall and pick up what I like to call random books. The concept is you pick out books that you know nothing about but sound interesting just from reading the dust jacket. At the discount store you can pick up hard back books for just a couple of bucks each (the outlet mall store has a buy four get the fifth free deal). Quite often I stumble upon some good books in this manner (see here and here for previous installments).

In my last trip I picked up Tom Gilling’s Sooterkin but never managed to read it. Since it was the only work remaining from that trip I thought I should finish it so I could cross it off the list (yes I am weird like that). I must admit that I was disappointed. Despite some rhetorical flourishes and funny characters, the novel really never takes off. It reads like a series of character sketches and comedic situations, rather than a compelling story.

Sooterkin is set in 19th century Australia; specifically in the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land. In this raw place Sarah Dyer gives birth to what looks like a seal pup. No one is sure what it – its formal name is Arthur – is or whether there is some mischief or fraud behind its birth, but it has the whole town a buzz. Some think it might be a Sooterkin, a mythical creature supposedly born to a Dutch women a 100 years before. Sarah thinks it might be a way to make a decent living.

Gilling, a British journalist who moved to Australia, fills the book with odd characters:

– Sarah’s alcoholic husband and pickpocket son (who loves Arthur like a true brother).
– The Rev. Kidney, who came to Australia hoping for riches, but finds only poverty and more debt.
– The scientist, and phrenologist, Mr. Skully who is fascinated by the scientific possibilities of studying Arthur.

There are at least half-a-dozen more minor characters who are involved. And that is one of the problems with the book, too many characters and none with much depth. Sooterkin reads like an exercise in “creative writing:” a lot of imagination and humorous description without depth; or much of a plot to pull it forward. Granted, some of the description is evocative and many of the characters are quite humorous, but it never quite comes together as a whole. There isn’t a character to root for, or against for that matter, and the pace begins to drag rather quickly. Soon the reader is asking what is the point of all of this? It is rare for me to tire of a book that is just over 200 pages, but I had to struggle to finish this one.

Sooterkin does show some promise of better things to come in Gilling’s sense of place and his imaginative characters, but there isn’t enough meat on the bones to make it all come together. Unfortunately, given my experience with this book I am not likely to seek out the rest of Gilling’s work to see if he has gotten any better.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).