I knew very little about this book when I bought it. I was captivated by its beautiful hardcover and tinted edges as one of the Penguin Australian Classics currently available at the National Library of Australia’s bookshop. I took it with me to read when I went to a festival out past Ipswitch, Queensland and reading about the hard life and unforgiving landscape was a stark contracts to the lush, hedonistic, semi-glamping experience that was my weekend.
Originally published in 1981, “A Fortunate Life” is the autobiography of Australian war veteran A. B. Facey. It chronicles his incredibly difficult childhood in rural Western Australia, his experiences in Gallipoli, and his life after returning to Australia. The picture Facey paints of life as a settler and farmer in Australia at the turn of the 20th century is very bleak. The systems in place to protect children from abuse and exploitation today simply did not exist in Facey’s time, and it was astonishing to me the amount of power his mother wielded over his life despite not having seen him since he was 2 years old.
Denied the right to go to school, Facey was illiterate until late childhood and his ability to read and write was mostly self taught. In a way, his writing style could be described as childish or simplistic, as though even as an older man he had never truly become fluent in the written word. While perhaps not beautifully written, Facey’s story is honest and heartfelt and his descriptions of his life are detailed and immersive.
Interestingly, his childhood and his recollections of his time at war make up well over half the novel, even though they made up only a quarter of his life. After Facey’s return from Gallipoli, the novel feels a little rushed. While there are more than a few indications that these were the happiest times of his life, Facey skims through them. This was a little disappointing for a reader who really wanted to see Bert get some wins. He also touches on his political and religious beliefs somewhat in this part of the book, but they seem a little disconnected from the story overall.
Ultimately though, this is a book that really speaks for itself. Facey was clearly a man with boundless courage and optimism who met challenges and adversity face-on and managed to carve himself a niche in a hostile land. It was incredible the things he was able to learn and contribute despite being unable to read and write, and his knowledge and expertise was valued and rewarded many times over. His tenacity really shines through, and the fact that he managed to write the book at all despite missing out on opportunities that all children should have is a testimony to his perseverance. An admirable contribution to Australian literature.