Wednesday 13 November 2019

99 Interpretations of The Drover's Wives by Ryan O'Neill

This little curiosity has been sitting by my bed for over a year now. It has taken a hectic schedule and a determination to read as much Australian literature this month as possible to bring this particular book to the top of the pile.


Simply because, as the title says, it is 99 stories re-interpreting Henry Lawson's 1892 short story The Drover's Wife. With my schedule so crazy, the chance to read a stack of short stories sounded like the perfect way to get through AusReadingMonth ticking a few goals!

And it was.

99 Interpretations of the Drover's Wives was a LOT of fun. Starting with a reprint of the original Henry Lawson story to refresh our memories, O'Neill then went on to retell the story in various literary styles.

I'd love to share all 99 with you, but that would just get tedious. Which is how I also felt if I tried to read more than 4 or 5 in one sitting.

The Drover's Wives was best read in small doses so that one could enjoy each version for what it was.

My personal favourites were the Hemingwayesque, the Year 8 English Essay (which had me laughing out loud and reading parts out to a bemused Mr Books), Editorial Comments, A Gossip Column, A 1980's Computer Game, Tweets, A Question Asked by an Audience Member at a Writer's Festival and Biographical. I also enjoyed the Cryptic Crossword and Wordsearch.

Some of the interpretations left me scrambling around on google trying to understand the reference. For instance, I have never read any Cormac McCarthy, so the McCarthyesque version went over my head until I found a vocab list of McCarthy's books that explained everything!

Lipogram was another new-to-me term. Turns out this is a composition where the author systemically omits a certain letter of the alphabet. O'Neill chose the letter 'e'. Whilst Univocalic only uses one vowel throughout the whole story. Again the 'e'.

I wasn't sure what a pangram was, but figured out from the sentence - Zippy onyx snake just got squelched by fuming drover's wife! - that it was a sentence that used every letter of the alphabet.

I also discovered someone I know. At the bottom of the Political Cartoon was 'art by Sam Paine'. I thought, 'I know Sam Paine, he's a Mudgee boy, I wonder if it's the same one?' Turns out it was.

The N + 7 chapter made no sense until I discovered the N + 7 generator - a machine that converts your text by replacing each noun in a text with the seventh one following it in a dictionary. It also explained why O'Neill dedicated the book not only to Henry Lawson but the Frenchman Raymond Queneau. Queneau was one of the 1960 founders of OULIPO (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle) a group of ten writers and mathematicians who created pieces by using constrained writing techniques.

One of Queneau's most famous works was Exercises in Style, which tells the story of a man's seeing the same stranger twice in one day. He tells that short story in 99 different ways. Sound familiar?

Abecedarian was a curious choice. Until I learnt about the program for disadvantaged children and finally understood the focus on the children playing and the desire for a stable home environment.

The Drover's Wives was a playful, entertaining read.
O'Neill managed to sneak in pretty much every fact known about the writing of the original story, plus loads of biographical information about Lawson throughout the 99 versions. Imaginative speculation and creative cross-overs with other stories and authors also featured in different versions.

Recommended for readers with some basic knowledge of Lawson, his short stories and the Australian literary scene. If you have to google every single version, then you may not find it quite so amusing.

the drover's wife, 1945 Russell Drysdale

  • O'Neill was the winner of the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction for Their Brilliant Careers.
  • The Drover's Wife was first published in The Bulletin on the 23rd July 1892.
  • Russell Drysdale's painting the drover's wife 1945 (although apparently not connected to Lawson's story).
  • On 28th June 1975 Murray Bail published a story in Tabloid Story that connected Lawson and Drysdale's works.
  • In 1980 Frank Moorhouse published his satire of the bush ethos in the centenary January edition of The Bulletin.
  • In December of the same year, Barbara Jeffries published her feminist version.
  • Anne Gambling (1986) The Drover's De Facto
  • Kate Jennings (1996) Snake
  • Mandy Sayers (1996) The Drovers' Wives - a critical response.
  • David Ireland (1997) The Drover's Wife
  • Damien Broderick (1991) The Drover's Wife's Dog tells the story from the dogs point of view.
  • Leah Purcell in 2016 created a play based on the story that infuses the story with a female First Nations perspective.
  • The Drover's Wife : A Celebration of a Great Australian Love Affair anthology by Frank Moorhouse 2017 which includes many of the versions above.


  1. This does sound like fun. I know nothing about Henry Lawson's The Drover's Wife, but I am a sucker for Oulipo-vian things

    1. I was glad he started with the original story as it had been a very long time since I had read it at school.
      This was my first (conscious) experience of an Oulipo-vian approach - it was a lot of fun.

    2. One of my favorites is Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual. You can read it as just a novel about a bunch of people in an apartment building and it's a lot of fun that way, but then you learn there's a pattern to it, too.

      Calvino is loosely associated with Oulipo, too, and I find him a hoot.

    3. I remember reading If on a winter's night many, many years ago. It was fun, but I usually read for connection or an emotional experience, so unless I'm not in the mood for an emotional journey, then books like this can leave me cold. Reading this when I was uber-busy and stretched a bit thin, was just right. Certainly by the end of the 99 stories I was feeling a bit tired of the game.

      I also found this quote from David Mitchell which sums up how I often feel about books like this - Author David Mitchell described himself as being "magnetised" by the book from its start when he read it as an undergraduate, but on rereading it, felt it had aged and that he did not find it "breathtakingly inventive" as he had the first time, yet does stress that "however breathtakingly inventive a book is, it is only breathtakingly inventive once" – with once being better than never.

    4. I find Calvino at his best to be emotionally engaging as well, but maybe that's just me... ;-) But even rereads of The Baron in the Trees can make me cry.

  2. It does sound like an interesting concept. I'm glad to hear that it was a nice intermission in your busy month.


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