I receive literally dozens of review and guest blog requests every day, and sadly I simply can’t accommodate them all. However, when Cosmic Teapot (how’s that for a name?) asked if I’d feature The Pacifist by Mehreen Ahmed which is set in Australia, a country I loved visiting, I had to grab the opportunity.
In 1866, Peter Baxter’s misfortune ends the day he leaves Badgerys Creek orphanage. Unsure of what to do next, Peter finds himself on a farm run by Mr. Brown. An ageing man, Brown needs help and is happy to give Peter a place to live in exchange for his labour. Unbeknown to Peter, Brown’s past is riddled with dark secrets tied to the same orphanage, which he has documented in a red folder.
During a chance encounter, Peter meets Rose. Peter cannot help but fall in love with her beauty, grace, and wit; however, he fears that his affection will go unrequited as a result of his crippling poverty. But fate changes when Peter joins the search for gold in Hill End, New South Wales. Striking it rich, he returns to Rose a wealthy man. Peter is changed by his new found affluence, heading towards the mire of greed. Will Rose regret her relationship with Peter?
Meanwhile, Rose has her own troubled history. One that is deeply entwined with Brown’s past and Peter’s future.
Authority and Ambition in The Pacifist
A Guest Post by Mehreen Ahmed
The Pacifist is not just an historical fiction that romanticises the adventurous gold rush period in Australia. Largely, the novel is a commentary on institutional power and a stark warning about blind ambition. From the outset, The Pacifist illustrates these themes through troubled characters. Malcolm’s strange upbringing, Rose’s mental illness and supernatural visions, Peter’s idealised version a good life – all finish with unintended consequences. At the heart of driving these characters forward is an orphanage.
In The Pacifist, the orphanage is not the safe haven it should be. Children suffering in the hands of a paedophile is deplorable and inexcusable. The most vulnerable in our society are in the grips of the most despicable. This warrants an investigation into the facilities that society comes to put their trust in. While the story focuses on this one example of an institution taking advantage of the unfortunate, the orphanage itself is a symbol for the greater injustices that happen. A system of authority imposing its will on the less fortunate is not a new idea; still, it is one that needs continuous reinvestigation. Through fiction, we can find new ways to reopen this dialogue.
The theme of institutional power continues permeates a poor farmer, Brown. The property, owned by Badgerys Creek Orphanage holds a strict caveat over him. He is essentially unable to leave the farm without falling into extreme poverty. The caveat is symbolic of the ultimate institutional power over its people. A gate-less keeper, this caveat stops Brown from moving forward in life, keeping him in a place of subservience. While in a state of perpetual poverty, he knew that he was free to leave the farm anytime – yet, he couldn’t. The orphanage’s influence on Brown anchored his psyche to the one thing that he knew: the farm. This caveat claimed hold of his family beyond his death. The farm should be passed onto future generation, exemplifying a system that wants to keep the poor, poor. This is an important and familiar theme in sociology, where it is in the interest of the rich to keep low class individuals where they are.
Ambition is a good thing, but where does one draw a line between ambition and greed? Peter seeks to overcome his social status by working hard. His role in the novel is to show the reader that there is a fine line between success and greed. If one cannot determine the demarcation point between the two, serious repercussions may lay ahead. His family is thrown into turmoil as a result of his unwillingness to find balance between living life and seeking wealth. The family’s lives become a wasteland, existing within the moral bankruptcy of their own souls. A typical characterisation of nihilism arising out of this sterility, which betrays life. No amount of wealth can absolve them of such sins.
While set in the nineteenth century, The Pacifist contains themes that are relevant to today’s readers. The attempt to rise above institutional power, to better one’s living situation, is a struggle that millions of people around the world consistently experience. Examining this idea through historical fiction is, in part, my way of finding a new context in which to understand this situation.
About Mehreen Ahmed
Queensland writer, Mehreen Ahmed has been publishing since 1987. Her writing career began with journalism, academic reviews and articles. Her journalistic articles appeared in The Sheaf, a campus newspaper for the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, between 1987 and 1999.
Since then, she has authored several works including Jacaranda Blues, Snapshots, and Moirae. You’ll find all Mehreen’s books here.