Oh my goodness. Off to the great Southern Land again, and this time, in tears by the end of the book. That doesn’t happen very often!
Mum had a great interest in Australia, visiting me there several times. She read Australian authors with delight, I remember her joy at discovering the work of Peter Carey, and she particularly loved Bill Bryson’s marvellous book, Down Under, reading it at least twice! This wonderfully lyrical and poetic novel is new to me, however it is one Mum read in 2008, so it ‘made the cut’ so to speak, when Mum down-sized her library. That means she loved it and intended to re read it at some point.
I’ve just finished it – I began during the week, but it is such a ‘big’ read for a fairly slender volume, that I put it aside until I had time to curl up on the sofa with no distractions and thoroughly read it. I am glad I did so, as it is fabulous. The author, Gail Jones, has won many prizes for her work, and this novel was shortlisted for six major prizes in Australia and the UK on its publication in 2008. Her writing style, in this novel at least, is breath-taking. I found myself on many occasions going back and re-reading sentences to fully appreciate them, and her subject matter provided a brilliant counterpoint to Rabbit Proof Fence which was my last review. Fantastic.
The central character is Perdita, a little girl born to older English expatriate parents who don’t really want her to begin with, they almost hoped she would die at birth. As a result, her principal relationships are not with them, but with the Aboriginal women who nursed her, Billy, the ‘slow’ deaf mute son of the neighbouring farming family, and finally and most importantly, with Mary, a young Aboriginal girl from the missions who is brought in to care for her when her mother is admitted to hospital, having completely lost touch with reality. Stella lives in a world of Shakespeare, frequently quoting great chunks of plays, while her husband Nicholas, who has come to Australia as an anthropologist to study Aboriginal culture, has long since lost interest and become a mean spirited and rather nasty person, raping Aboriginal girls, and becoming obsessed with the progress of the Second World War in Europe.
The brutal murder of Nicholas in their shack is the opening scene of the novel, and the central theme. From page 1 –
‘This is a story that can only be told in a whisper. There is a hush to difficult forms of knowing, an abashment, a sorrow, an inclination towards silence. My throat is misshapen with all it now carries. My heart is a sour, indolent fruit. I think the muzzle of time has made me thus, has deformed my mouth, my voice, my wanting to say. At first there was just this single image: her dress, the particular blue of hydrangeas, spattered with the purple of my fathers blood.’
Perdita, Billy, Mary, and her mother Stella, are all there, but who did it? Perdita is the narrator, but she cannot remember, and has developed a dreadful stutter after the event, rendering her almost completely mute.
Appropriately named for the character in Shakespeare’s Tempest, Perdita finds herself aligned far more closely with the aborigines, who value life as a whole, ongoing tale, have intricate kinship bonds, and knowledge of the land on a deeper level, than with the white Australians, who have driven them from their ancestral lands and forcibly removed their children. Aboriginal children, especially half caste, as we saw in Rabbit Proof Fence, were forcibly removed from their families and ‘schooled’ in institutions to provide service to the whites who had stolen their lands. Perdita is aware of the injustices, having seen her father raping Mary even though she didn’t really understand what he was doing, and she finds a sense of order, love, and care in Aboriginal culture which she definitely does not receive from her own people. Reference is made to the Aboriginal view of the land and the people all belonging together, and Perdita finds solace in their acceptance of her as a part of that whole picture.
The Australian bush is brilliantly portrayed in this book. I could taste the red dust, smell the gum trees, hear the lorikeets, see the cobalt sky, and Ms Jones description of a violent storm was captivating. I loved a chapter where the children were introduced to honey ants by Mary – they are ‘her’ creature so she won’t eat them herself, but Billy and Perdita’s delight is her delight. I remember my children eating honey ants! It is a place like no other, and this author knows it well. Her descriptive passages somehow also manage to convey beautifully the Aboriginal one-ness with the land and emphasise the white Australians inability to cope with an environment they could not control.
I loved this. I recommend it most whole-heartedly. I shan’t say anything about how the story ends. I shall instead add my voice to the countless Australians who have said, sorry. What was done in the last century to the native people of a great country was truly awful – saying sorry is a very small step forward, and Ms Jones, with this magnificent tale, says it from the heart.
As always, if you would like this marvellous book, Mums copy, bought by her and read in 2008, please get in touch with me and I shall be delighted to gift it forward to you. If it has already been claimed, here is a link to purchase a copy on Amazon…
and seriously, if anyone can talk me through adding this link more simply…please get in touch!!!!!
Don’t forget to like and follow the facebook page Mums Books. Thanks for reading, and I do hope you read this book! Much love, Becky XXX