Reading Down Under

The Man Who Lost Himself by Robyn Annear

It is sometimes difficult for me to fathom that this country is populated almost entirely by immigrants. Even now it’s unusual for me to meet someone who’s parents were born in this country and “The Man Who Lost Himself” represents totally the idea of Australia being a place where a man could lose his identity and fashion himself a new one.

Meet Roger Tichbourne, the French born and English raised aristocrat who is lost at sea one fateful day. When his father dies, his mother makes one last desperate attempt to find her son alive and well, posting details of her son in Australian papers. Soon a man announces that he is that lost son, a man who has been living under the alias of Tom Castro as a lowly butcher. This announcement would lead to the longest trial in the English court until the 1990’s, speculation, wild rumours and a mountain of debt for all parties concerned.

The novel takes place mostly in England, with Castro (being referred to as the Tichbourne Claimant from his arrival into the country) being placed on trail to prove himself to be the true Roger Tichbourne. Robyn Annear truly does a remarkable job of weaving tremendous amounts of information into this fascinating story without showing bias or inducing the reader to boredom. More than once throughout the beginning of the story I found myself feeling sure that he was a fraud, or that he had to be real, only to find myself being wound around to the other way of thinking. After a while it becomes clear that Castro is unlikely to be a Tichborne, especially when the family of one Aurthor Orten claim that to be his real name. Annear tracks both men’s lives, showing deftly how one seemed to become the other, and the farce of the trails that followed. The chapters on the two different men (or so the defence would have you believe…) can get a little confusing, especially when Annear is forced to quote completely conflicting testimonies but this just adds to the feeling of wild speculation.

The chapters on the lives these men lived in Australia is amazingly detailed. The freedom that was brought from such a journey out of England is palatable but so is the difficulty with which they lived. I’m not going to be so naive as to presume that Castro’s life was always tinted with a little shame and crime simply because he was a bad person but because life in Australia was, at that time, just so unforgiving.

This book also shows how this trail was the first to truly bring the country into the English spotlight, forever endearing “the bush” as a place a man would run to and forget his (clearly superior) English home. Learning about the perspectives of the Victorians, arguably the most famous period of English history, with regard to Australia was incredibly impressive to me. Like stepping from a world I am somewhat familiar with (part of my degree focused on the Victorians) and into a world that was distinctly different yet still similar in many key ways.

This book has been an amazing read for me, teaching me more about Australian life of the past than anything else I have seen. Annear is an excellent writer, presenting opinions and facts in an interesting way, telling the story but not dictating it to the reader.


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