Interview with Peter Burke – The Silk Merchant’s Son

Here’s our review of Peter Burke’s latest WA historical fiction novel, The Silk Merchant’s Son, and our podcast interview with the author.

Peter Burke is a Perth doctor and successful writer of Western Australian historical fiction.

His first novel, The Drowning Dream, a Broome pearling mystery, was shortlisted for both the Australian/Vogel Literary Award and the WA Premier’s Book Awards. His second, Wettening Aurelia, featured CY O’Connor.

The Silk Merchant’s Son – just published by Fremantle Press – is his third novel.

The story, a captivating one from the get-go, begins in 1845, just 16 years after the foundation of the British Swan River Colony. But not everyone who turns up in the new Colony is British.

Linguistics professor Fabrice Cleriquot hails from France. He is despatched by his father from Lyon to the Swan River, with a box full of silkworms, to stop him from bringing more disgrace to the family name.

Accompanying him on board the Elizabeth to Fremantle are twenty-eight mismatched Catholic missionaries, including the soon-to-be-famous Dom Salvado, a Spaniard who plans to create a Benedictine monastery out in the West Australian bush where he can assist the local Noongar people. Also on the ship are a group of Irish Sisters of Mercy, including the irrepressible Ursula Frayne, who are fleeing famine in their homeland and planning to further the good works of their founder, Catherine McAuley, in this distant Colony run by the British.

Given the job of distributing a huge donation from a wealthy French benefactress, otherwise known as the Saintly Virgin of Lyon, Fabrice bears witness to the folly of his travelling companions, whose presumptuous attempts to rescue the Colony and the Noongar from themselves, one senses, can only lead to tragedy.

As all good historical fiction novelists do, Burke adroitly weaves fiction around fact, seamlessly stitching strands of drama and humour along the way. The cleverness of the novel, especially for a West Australian reader, is that you find yourself actively engaging with protagonists – European missionaries and the folk they meet along the way – whose names are familiar to you, as they grapple, less or more successfully, with an ancient world that is quite alien to them.

The monastic village of New Norcia, these days a couple hours drive north of Perth, is always on the reader’s horizon. You are ever approaching it, but not quite reaching it in full bloom. Will it happen? Can it happen? Most readers know, of course, that New Norcia did happen. They know it eventually became a little bit of Benedictine Spain in Western Australia. What Burke does here is present a prequel to what eventually happened in the latter part of the 19th century when Dom Salvado’s vision for New Norcia came to fruition.

Peter Burke has researched his history impeccably. You know that what appear to be facts are indeed facts – well, mostly, apart from the ‘facts’ free-falling from his imagination. And there are a few. You are left wanting to seriously revisit the State’s colonial past, and learn more about the real people you’ve just met or remet, and discover just what happened to them.

You are also left pondering three bigger questions the author leaves dangling in discussion notes after the novel ends –

Why is New Norcia there, really?
What should one feel about the monks?
Was their mission ultimately a force for good, or ill, or some mix of both?

The Silk Merchant’s Son is a highly readable, fast moving, and historically interesting account of an early period of Western Australian colonial history that will appeal to a wide audience. There is so much to be learned and puzzled over between its covers. There’s no doubt bookclubs the State over won’t be able to resist the invitation to answer Burke’s three questions!

Peter Burke kindly agreed to sit down with our Editor, Michael Barker, to discuss the book, the research behind it, and the story that raises and leaves dangling the above three questions. The result is a very lively podcast interview that you won’t want to miss!


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Here’s the PODCAST – enjoy!