‘Solitary’ explores the lives of three generational families: the Dammerels, the Fleets and the Tulks, who operated the Solitary Lighthouse from the early to mid-1900s.
Urchin, the only daughter of light-keeper Henry Dammerel, returns home to care for her ailing father. Her arrival heralds unexpected news as she learns of her father’s bequest: to marry his successor. Torn between her worldly aspirations and the family duty, Urchin uncovers a secret her mother harboured years before, dramatically affecting her connection to the new keeper, enigmatic fisherman Byron Fleet.
Fleet is no stranger to Solitary. For a decade, he has grappled with the loss of his younger brother, Declan, who disappeared in similar circumstances to Urchin’s mother. The legend of a beautiful Selk girl — part-human, part-seal — ensnared in his grandfather’s fishing net, is said to have prompted the struggle between their families. To conceal the girl’s identity, she was taken in by the Dammerels and promised to the light-keeper’s son.
As the months pass, Urchin reconsiders her father’s proposition. She returns to the Island with an ultimatum: she will marry Byron on the condition that she can continue her fieldwork. Suddenly, the Island is not so solitary as war is declared: another family, the Tulks, are posted to Solitary. Tensions build both on and off the Island. The families are brought together in the wake of devastation. An enemy submarine is detected offshore leaving the families at the forefront of a deadly ambush.
The beacon is extinguished, and so begins the darkest night on Solitary.
A True Story: How Solitary came to be
Initially published as a short story for my undergraduate creative writing class, ‘The Solitary Light’ evolved rapidly into a novel idea when I discovered a family connection to the Lighthouse – a connection made after I wrote the first chapter…
I have always had a fascination with lighthouses and solitary places, so when I stumbled across South Solitary Island Lighthouse, located 10km off the coast of Coffs Harbour, NSW in early 2014 (after watching the Australian film of the same name), I just had to find out more! When ‘The Solitary Light’ short story was published in USC’s creative writing anthology Within Without and promoted via social media, I was contacted by family members in Coffs Harbour (relatives that I had not previously known about). A roadtrip to Coffs and conversations around the kitchen table with my charismatic (and cheeky!) Great Aunt Pam revealed that her late husband, my Great Uncle Tony was in fact the Doctor who had cared for the families of South Solitary Lighthouse in the mid-1900s!
How’s that for a truth stranger than fiction?
Pictured: Cover image from Emerge, 2019.
Site Research: A Helicopter flight and Meeting the Keeper
Five years on from first penning the first chapter and numerous visits to Coffs Harbour, I began my Masters in Professional Practice (Creative Writing) at USC to set up a research framework and mentorship for writing ‘The Solitary Light: A Novel’.
During my Masters, I had the very exciting opportunity in 2017 to visit South Solitary, an island only accessible to the public once a year by helicopter. This site research provided invaluable insights for me as a writer to re-imagine life on the Island as the lighthouse families would have experienced back in the day as well as the chance to meet the last Lighthouse Keeper who lived on-site until the Light’s automation in 1974.
On this trip I also visited the Coffs Harbour Museum where, coincidentally, the exhibition ‘Not So Solitary: Memories of the Solitary Islands Marine Park’ was on. I feel very privileged to have had this experience re-tracing the footsteps of the real ‘Urchins’ and ‘Byrons’ of my imagination!
In late 2017, I decided to become a volunteer tour guide and member of FOCL for the Caloundra Lighthouses, which I enjoyed immensely until moving to Brisbane in 2019 – and what better way to immerse oneself in the setting and era than surveying the sea from a rickety wooden platform, climbing ladders and squeezing through trapdoors as the original keepers would have done to tend to their beloved Light!
Further notes on historical background & research aims
The novel will combine both historical and fictional accounts, interwoven with a deeper commentary on the human condition. The intended atmospheric effect of the setting is a metaphor for the character’s internal turmoil, their isolation caused by exposure to the harsh elements, and ultimately, the confrontation of existence itself on an island.
‘Solitary’ will contribute to new knowledge in creative writing through its’ innovative style by combining historical fact with elements of fiction, known as ‘faction’. The prose itself, structured as a frame story, aims to conjure a setting that is both atmospheric and metaphorical; the harsh landscape mirroring the internal angst of the characters’.
The new knowledge imparted through story will aim to give the reader a renewed understanding of contrasting Australian landscapes, and the disconnection of place and time in which the historical events take place. The novel intends to contribute to the cultural and traditional narratives of the Australian homeland.
Photo credit: Garry Searle.
Read an excerpt
- Read Chapter 2 from ‘The Solitary Light’ (p.11) in Within Without (PDF 16.6MB)
- Read Chapters 6-8 from ‘The Solitary Light’ (p.43) in Emerge (PDF 16.2MB)
Read news article in the Sunshine Coast Daily.
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