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Posts Tagged ‘Kate Grenville’

After being wowed by Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (see my review here), I thought it would be interesting to revisit another celebrated colonial-era ‘first-contact’ novel: Kate Grenville’s The Secret River.  It is the story of poverty-stricken Thames waterman William Thornhill, convicted to hang for the theft of Brazil wood, and his wife, Sal.  Thornhill escapes hanging only to be transported to New South Wales and after being assigned to his wife and making some progress in the ‘Camp’ that would become Sydney, builds a successful shipping business ferrying goods and produce to and from the farms on the Hawkesbury River, north ofSydney.  This is the ‘secret river’ of the novel’s title: [p100]:

Thornhill strained to find that secret river.  In every direction, the reaches of Broken Bayseemed to end in yet another wall of rock and forest.  A man could sail for days and never find his way into the Hawkesbury.    

(As an aside, this is not only lyrical writing, but also historically accurate: when the first explorers set off from Sydney to explore Broken Bay they completely missed the main river so hidden was its course.)

It is on his first trip up the river, helping an older lighterman, Thomas Blackwood, that Thornhill spies a plot of land which he calls Thornhill’s Point, and a yearning for it is kindled, a longing to own a piece of land that would be beyond him in London.  All he had to do was pitch up and take it – oh, and convince his Missus that it was a good idea.  There were a lot of stories inSydneyabout troubles with the aboriginals on the Hawkesbury so she is quite nervous about moving there.  So too is Thornhill.

Right from the start Grenville has Thornhill facing up to the aboriginals, even if it is old ‘Scabby Bill’, an old native who dances for a sup of rum in Sydney.  There is a sense that things will not work out well.  Thornhill thinks, [p5]: “There were worse things than dying: life had taught him that.  Being here in New South Wales might be one of them.”

Grenville’s writing is evocative; her sense of place is exacting.  Thornhill grows up in grinding, stomach-aching poverty inLondon, where the [p9] “light struggled in through small panes of cracked glass and the soot from the smoking fireplace veiled the walls.”  Have a look at those word choices(!): struggled, small, cracked, soot, veiled: his life reeks of cold, hunger, and want.

He admires Sal and enjoys being in her house, [p17]:  “It was easy to wish to belong to this house … He could imagine how he would grow into himself in the warmth of such a home.  It … was the feeling of having a place.”

This theme of having a home, something of his own, feeds his desire to set up on the secret river.  There, Thornhill and Sal – as well as their burgeoning brood of children – come into the realm of a hardy bunch of white-settler neighbours, although the closest is an hour away.  Some of these are intent on eradication of the natives, people like Smasher Sullivan and Sagitty Birtles.  Others, like Blackwood, are more than sympathetic to the natives.  Blackwood has had a daughter to an aboriginal woman.  Tensions are already high between these various factions, and whenever they get together talk quickly turns to the question of the latest ‘depredations’ of the natives.

One of the great plot elements here is Sal’s great reluctance to leaveSydneyand take up land on the Hawkesbury.  They come to an agreement: she would give him five years and then they would return toLondon.  The deal sets up great tension.  We know he wants to stay and she wants to leave.  What will give?

Thornhill plants corn on his land, in part to say to all-comers, ‘this is my land.’  In the process he rips out the yam daisies that are a staple for the local aboriginals.  This theft of food supply is an oft-repeated early flashpoint in colonial settlements around Australia, and is thus very realistic.

Elsewhere, historical accuracy has been questioned.  Much has been made of the climax of the book as well as how believable it is for Smasher to get away with his constant acts of depravity against the natives.  Aboriginal Law works on a ‘payback’ system.  Whilst aboriginals had a collective system of guilt in which the perpetrator’s family members could be substituted for ritual payback, aboriginals picked out the guilty where they could.  Watkin Tench, a first fleet lieutenant, told the death of the governor’s game keeper, who it seems, was speared for payback for his presumed killings of aboriginals.  It stretches credulity, say critics, that Smasher was not subject to payback by the local aboriginals, particularly as he lives by himself.  Such are the dangers of historical fiction!  It seems that, for some, it is not good enough writing a gripping ‘story’, a work of historical fiction must be believable in every sense of the history of the time.  I’m in two minds about this.  Stories should ‘ring true’ but at the end of the day they are fiction.  Grenville was at pains to point out that The Secret River was a work of fiction and not history.  Smasher is an evil man but a good fictional character, just as Blackwood is a good character.  They each serve their purpose in building the conflict that drives the story.

What Grenville does brilliantly is make us sympathise with a character who will end up doing something unspeakable.  Some point to the unusual novelistic end where Thornhill goes unpunished for his deeds.  Yet Thornhill is punished: one of his sons, Dan, who grew up on the river and swam with black children and learned some of their ways, like how to make fire, deserts Thornhill and goes to live with the broken Blackwood.  This estrangement pains Thornhill.  But what pains him even more is his searching of the ridge-tops at the end with his looking glass, trying to spot an aboriginal still living in the wilds.  One gets the feeling that had he his time again he would have made another choice.  It’s not the punishment society should meter out to him, but it is a never-ending suffering all the same.

Thornhill and Sal are left altered by the events: [p324-5]:

They were loving to each other still.  She smiled at him with that sweet mouth.  He took her hand to feel its narrowness in his own and she did not resist.  Whatever the shadow was that lived with them, it did not belong to just him, but to her as well: it was a space they both inhabited.  But it seemed there was no way to speak into that silent space.  Their lives had slowly grown around it, the way the roots of a river-fig grew around a rock. 

Also eloquent are the many descriptive passages of the Australian environment, from the bush aroundSydneyto the river landscape of the Hawkesbury.   Thornhill’s first night inSydneyis spent listening: [p3]:

Through the doorway of the hut he could feel the night, huge and damp, flowing in and bringing with it the sounds of its own life: tickings and creakings, small private rustlings, and beyond that the soughing of the forest, mile after mile. 

A month or two back I read Grenville’s Searching for the Secret River, her memoir of the process of writing the book.  (I’d recommend the book for anyone who wants to ‘see behind the curtain’ so-to-speak; for anyone else, it might break the spell.)  One of the interesting sections in that book was a chapter on how hard she had to work to get the dialogue right.  She ended up taking advice from Annie Proulx who talked about the rhythm of the dialogue, how altering word order and using the odd old word changes the ‘sound’.  Grenville writes in Searching:

… I decided that my job as a novelist wasn’t to reconstruct the authentic … eighteenth-century vernacular.  My job was to produce something that sounded authentic.

She sourced dialogue from Old Bailey Court Sessions which are now online.  The dialogue comes in short bursts, in italics, subsumed within paragraphs.  Characters often talk around things rather than in a direct manner.  It’s a very interesting re-creation of 18th century dialogue.  Mostly I found it convincing, (although the repeated ‘Damn your eyes’ became a little tiresome!)

It is interesting that Grenville refers to her protagonist throughout the book as ‘Thornhill’ rather than ‘William’, something she repeated for her character Rooke in her wonderful follow-up novel The Lieutenant (see my review).  I wonder why this is?  Is it because she didn’t want us to get too close to Thornhill, or is it simply a choice based on the way people were known in 1800?  If you have any insight, let me know.

When I first read The Secret River I thought theLondon section a little long.  This time round I thought the pacing was excellent.  (It’s funny how we change our minds on some things with a second reading.)

The Secret River has elements of similarity with That Deadman Dance – the dwindling sources of food, the blundering settlers, the clash of cultures, the demise of the natives – but Scott’s novel is elegiac and offers a sense of possibility and hope.  The Secret River is a very different animal.  Both are excellent.  Let’s hope that we can build not as William Thornhill does – covering the fish carved by the aboriginals in the rock with his stone-walled home – but as Bobby Wabalanginy would have us do, with a sense of togetherness.

The Secret River won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the NSW Premier’s Literary Award, and was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize (won by Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss (see my review here); for mine, The Secret River is the better book).

There’s an interesting discussion of the book on the Guardian’s Book Club website, including an interview with Kate Grenville: see here.

There’s also a lively discussion on The Secret River on the ABC First Tuesday Book Club’s website.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Text Publishing

2005

ISBN:9781921520341

334 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)

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What a breath of fresh air this story was after slogging through Moby-DickThe Lieutenant is the second of three historical novels set in colonial times in Sydney that Grenville has (or is) writing, the first of which was the much acclaimed The Secret River, and the third of which is due out later in 2011.

The Lieutenant is based on the life of William Dawes, who sailed to New South Wales on the first fleet and set up Sydney’s first observatory on the point which now bears his name, though in Grenville’s fictionalised version of history, his name has been changed to Daniel Rooke.  Others have had their names and character fictionalised too, including Commodore Arthur Phillip, Watkin Tench, Phillip’s ‘game keeper’ McIntyre, and all the aboriginal characters.

As a young boy, Daniel Rooke is drawn to mathematics.  He particularly likes prime numbers, [p4]: “Like him, they were solitaries.”  To Rooke, mathematics is a language, as is all science.  Yet Rooke is also a gifted linguist, learning to speak five languages, including Greek and Latin.  It is his mathematics and love for stars which the Observer Royal identifies and which gains him a berth on the first fleet as the colony’s observer.  A comet is due to appear in southern skies soon after the settlement is founded and Rooke is sent to observe it.  After arriving in the very different world of Sydney Cove, Rooke requests permission to set up his observatory with telescope and other measuring equipment on the point on the western side of Sydney Cove – above what would become known as the Rocks.  This suits him perfectly.  He is a loner, and prefers to escape all the duties of serving in His Majesty’s marines.

Whilst his ambitious friend, Silk, begins to write an account of the settlement to be published in London, and tries to get some of the first words of the native language when they finally are persuaded into the camp, Rooke begins to build a relationship with Tagaran, sharing not only words, but the structure of language and a burgeoning friendship.  It is these encounters which show Grenville at her best.  They are moving and wonderfully capture what the first encounters might have been like, and the motivations of those on each side.

Grenville’s wonderful opening chapters create a solid foundation for Rooke’s character.  His fellow student’s boast [p9] that the British Empire and his own ‘illustrious family’ would ‘collapse if slavery were abolished’ get short shrift in Rooke’s logical mind.  (Dawes would, after his time in NSW, go to the West Indies and campaign for the abolition of slavery).  To Rooke [p10], “Euclid seemed an old friend. … it was as if [Rooke] had been speaking a foreign language all his life, and had just now heard someone else speaking it too.”  At the Naval Academy, Rooke is shown to have perfect pitch and loves fugues most of all, because [p13], “A fugue was not singular, as a melody was, but plural.  It was a conversation.”  Stars are the capstone to his characterisation, for in them, Rooke sees “the unity of all things.  To injure any was to damage all.”

These skills, interests and moral compass serve Rooke well when he meets Tagaran and begins his quest to understand the natives’ language.  And though he understands much about it – “It was a language whose very cadence sounded like forgiveness” [p254] – it is Tagaran who learns more about what this white man, this Berewalgal, and the extent of his friendship that astonishes and amazes.

Other formative experiences are explored, such as a fellow lieutenant’s refusal to obey a command, but only enough to establish the platform for the dilemma that Rooke faces when the clash of black and white begin.  He even asks himself [p112] as he sees the lieutenant hang whether he himself has ever been faced with such a decision, and what he might do if he is.

The story is written with such economy and grace that it is hard to comprehend how such weighty issues and their resolution are so wonderfully defined.  There is no flaring drama here, but rather smouldering sharing, promises, realisations, awareness of shared humanity.  The language scenes, using quotes of Cadigal language from Dawes original notebooks, could have become quite dry and staid, but Grenville deftly co-opts them into her purpose and themes.  They are beautifully handled.  Rooke slowly becomes aware that the cold and strict rigour of scientific enquiry can only take his understanding of the world and the people in it so far.  The rest is organic, inexact, shifty.

The ending, in Antigua, works well and made me think a little of Jacob in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell.  Both Jacob and Rooke find themselves on the far side of the world thinking back to the most important days and person of their life and what they both mean to them.

I really enjoyed The Lieutenant and am looking forward to reading Grenville’s third historical novel when realised later this year.  If it’s anything like The Secret River and The Lieutenant, then we are in for another treat.  Having read a few books on the early colony of Sydney myself in the last few months, there are plenty of stories to be told – and plenty of myths to be expunged!

Lisa over at ANZ Lit Lovers also liked The Lieutenant.  Her (more extensive) review can be read here.

The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

Text Publishing

2008

ISBN: 9781921656767

302 pages

Source: local municipal library

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Yesterday I popped into the Mitchell Library to see the truly wonderful One Hundred exhibition, celebrating one hundred years of the library in one hundred objects.  The exhibit displays books, diaries, letters, maps, paintings, etchings, drawings, photos, and other objects d’art. 

For book lovers there are, naturally, numerous highlights.  There is the ‘pitch’ letter that Miles Franklin wrote to Angus and Robertson along with her manuscript for My Brilliant Career – which was rejected!  The letter is fascinating; self-deprecating and unsure – she calls her story “My Brilliant(?) Career”.  The letter was subsequently annotated by George Robertson, who noted the decision to reject the manuscript was taken whilst he was away! 

There is the journal of George Augustus Robinson, otherwise known as The Conciliator, whom Richard Flanagan fictionalises as The Protector in his novel Wanting (which was ironically my last read & review).  There is an early draft of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, written in very attractive longhand.  There is Patrick White’s Nobel Prize diploma and medal.  There is Donald Horne’s personal copy of The Lucky Country and Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner which was originally Six Pickles before she added a seventh and renamed it.  There is Banjo Patterson’s original Man from Snowy River, which can also be heard spoken by Jack Thompson, and Hnery Lawson’s While the Billy Boils

Architecture is also represented, with Joern Utzon’s original 1962 sketches for the Sydney Opera House and Glenn Murcutt’s drawings for his famed Magney House, amongst others.

This being Australia, there are the journals of several explorers, such as Ludwig Leichhardt – the inspiration for Patrick White’s Voss – gold explorer Harold Lasseter’s diary, found on his person after his death, and the journals of Wentworth and Lawson detailing their expedition across the Blue Mountains. 

There is John Gould’s The Birds of Australia, 1840-48, a mammoth tome of some 600 hand-coloured lithographs – no wonder it took so long to produce! – in which the larrikin kookaburra is known rather plainly as the Fawn-breasted Kingfisher

But some of the older exhibits yield real fascination – take for instance a letter to Giuliano de Medici by Andrea Corsalii written in c.1516, in which there is the first known drawing of the Southern Cross constellation by a European.  And the diary of Archibald Barwick, a WWI digger, who served Gallipoli and the Western Front, who writes on the 25th of April 1915: “Bullets hurt when they hit you”; he also talks of fear, of the thought of wanting out of it all but not wanting to leave your ‘mates’ behind. 

There is Sir Joseph Banks’ Endeavour journal, 1768-1771, a journal of the First Fleet, and early letters home – by Arthur Phillip and convict Mary Reibey – to England from the settlement at Port Jackson, which became Sydney, although as records show, Phillip was going to call it Albion, before Sydney was chosen.  Also present are some very interesting artefacts dealing with aboriginal issues, including a painted proclamation in Tasmania from around 1830 that tried to depict the sought after equal treatment of black and whites – and the punishment for killing – not through the usual dense words, but through pictures. 

The list goes on.  Indeed, the exhibition is so extensive that to take it in in one visit was too much.  But that’s fine with me – it means I have the perfect excuse to go back and see it again.  It’s free too, so there’s really no excuse for not seeing a magnificent exposition of unique items that display the history of Australia, in all of its forms, both triumphant and tragic. 

The only drawback is the website, which gives you a taste of the exhibit, but is very slow to navigate – you need to scroll (s-l-o-w-l-y) through all objects to get to one you want more information on, and when you return to this menu after looking at one object, you have to start from scratch again – very annoying!  There should be a page from which all items readily accessible.  What’s worse is there’s hardly any information on the items themselves, just a very short 10-20-odd second sound-bite – some of which seemed to have been cut off mid-stream – it’s not nearly enough and poorly done.  Of course, the real pleasure is seeing them with your own eyes, though for interstate and overseas visitors, the website should be better. 

The Dilettante’s Rating:

Exhibition: 5/5

Website: 1/5

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A few years back when The Dilettante was living in London I read an article by Neil Griffiths entitled ‘Top Ten Books about Outsiders’.  Included on his list were some obvious choices – Salinger’s ubiquitous The Catcher in the Rye – with the model of adolescent angst: Holden Caulfield, Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – which gives us two outsiders in Jane and Rochester, and The Stranger – or The Outsider – by Albert Camus.  The list also included Colin Wilson’s aptly titled The Outsider, and books on Beethoven and Jackson Pollock.  Remembering Babylon by David Malouf would sit comfortably on such an esteemed list.  Set in the mid-1840’s, it is the story of Gemmy Fairley, a boy washed ashore on the north Queensland coast at the age of 13 who is found and raised by a local clan of Aboriginals for 16 years until he tries to re-enter a nascent white settlement.  It is thus a story of a boy who is an outsider twice – first amongst the blacks, and then doubly-so when he enters the lives of the McIvor children: Janet and Meg and their cousin Lachlan who are the first to find him, cornering him atop a fence as their dog snaps at his alien heels.  It is this image of Gemmy – tottering above them as if fixed in mid air that is set in the minds of the children, particularly the eldest Janet, an image to which she returns to later in life with Lachlan, as they look back on the time spent with Gemmy in their midst.

This intersection of black and white Australia is of course nothing new in Australian literary fiction.  Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves (1976) comes to mind, particularly given its plot of a white woman, Ellen Roxburgh, the sole survivor of a shipwreck off the coast of Queensland, who is taken in by the local aboriginals who are also harbouring an escaped convict. Ellen eventually returns to the coastal fringe and re-enters white settlement, albeit much altered.  More recently, we have had Kate Grenville’s much acclaimed The Secret River, and there are numerous other examples of the black-white ‘collision’.  Remembering Babylon is a gem, short yet profound – a significant imagining of the ‘outsider’ in Australian terms.

Malouf’s prose is achingly beautiful throughout; his depiction of a variety of scenes, from rural Australian bush to the cobbled streets of London and a variety of social interactions, are detailed and pitch-perfect.  There are moments of such lucid beauty that you wish the story never ends.  Examples abound.  The haunting description of Gemmy washed ashore into the world of the aboriginals at the age of thirteen is both raw and beautiful – the aboriginals encounter him as a mystery; in time, it is a tale they tell as if it were a dreamtime story and had happened “ages ago, in a time beyond all memory, and to someone else.  How, when they found him he had been half-child, half-seacalf, his hair swarming with spirits in the shape of tiny phosphorescent crabs, his mouth stopped with coral; how, ash-pale and ghostly in his little white shirt, that long ago had rotted like a caul, he had risen up in the firelight and danced, and changed before their eyes from a sea-creature into a skinny human child.”  Yet despite him quickly attaching himself to the mob, they accept him “guardedly; in the droll, half-apprehensive way that is proper to an in-between creature.”  He has to fight for things.  His life is now defined by separation, and whilst he spends years with the aboriginals, we move quickly to the time he enters the white settlement, where he runs into the McIvor children’s company: “He was running to prove that all that separated him from them was the ground that could be covered.  He gave no consideration to what might happen when he arrived.”  The notion that ‘ground’ is all that separates Gemmy and the white settlers – or is all that separates any of us – is a painful irony, for there is always the ‘separation’ that exists between the members of a community and the outsiders who come into its midst, a separation that becomes all to clear to Gemmy with time.

We are soon witness to the white settlers’ fear of what Gemmy represents – the fear of being overrun by the blacks, for it had happened down at “Comet River – nineteen souls.”  It is the fear of the bogeyman come to life; Gemmy’s smell and movement are, for the community, reminders of this threat.  We see through their eyes their ‘horror’ of a face-to-face encounter with an aboriginal man, this ‘visible darkness’:

you meet at last in a terrifying equality that strips the last rags from your soul and leaves you far out on the edge of yourself that your fear now is that you may never get back.

And so Gemmy inhabits the space between two peoples, neither one nor the other:

It was the mixture of monstrous strangeness and unwelcome likeness that made Gemmy Fairley so disturbing to them, since at any moment he could show either one face or the other; as if he were always standing there at one of those meetings, but in his case willingly, and the encounter was an embrace.

There is a split in views as to how to deal with the perceived threat – with many favouring killing the aboriginals, whilst others favour a ‘softer’ approach of assimilation in which they envision them becoming de-facto slaves tending their crops on their plantations.  Gemmy quickly becomes aware of the hardline settlers’ real intentions – the hidden malice in their queries of him regarding his past life with the blacks, and gives them misleading information on the blacks’ numbers and whereabouts.  Gemmy’s fear and guardedness only serves to confirm the suspicions of the white men.  Even Mr Frazer, the settlement’s minister, whom Gemmy befriends and escorts on his ‘Botanising’ excursions, is held at arm’s-length.  Gemmy shows him plants the aboriginals use for food which Mr Frazer neatly draws in his book, and whilst Gemmy sees the black men in the trees and acknowledges them and their ‘claim’ so they let the two men pass, he does not tell Mr Frazer of their presence.  Malouf beautifully describes how the aboriginals would see these two white men: Gemmy would “have a clear light around him like the line that contained Mr Frazer’s drawings.  It came from the energy set off where his spirit touched the spirits he was moving through” whereas “all they would see of Mr Frazer was what the land itself saw: a shape, thin, featureless, that interposed itself a moment, like a mist or cloud, before the land blazed out in its full strength again and the shadow was gone, as if, in the long history of the place, it was too slight to endure, or had never been.”

Gemmy finds his way into the hearts of the McIvors.  He has been taken in by them, and sleeps in a lean-to set against their house.  He is particularly close to the precocious Lachlan, who has grand schemes of future expeditions he will undertake in order to find Leichhardt’s bones, and how he would take Gemmy with him and insist on having both their names inscribed on any monument subsequently erected in his honour.  But for Lachlan’s uncle – and the girls’ father – Jock McIvor, Gemmy’s presence is a fraught one.  He comes under pressure from concerned neighbours; in their eyes he has begun to “lose that magic quality”.  But outwardly he protects Gemmy: “Little defensive spikes and spurs appeared in him that surprised the others and increased a suspicion that they might somehow have been mistaken in him.”  Jock feels this scrutiny acutely.  His wife, Ellen, doesn’t escape either – the women with their afternoon darning sessions, “all barbed concern.”  Did she “really let him chop wood for her? Actually let him lose with an axe?”  Ellen feels enraged with their barbs, and yet, even for her: “there were nights, lying stiffly in the dark, hands clenched at her side, heart thumping, when she did not feel sure.”  Doubts reign supreme.

SPOILER ALERT:

Slowly, Gemmy becomes aware that he can no longer live in the settlement, even after moving in with Mrs Hutchence who lives on the road out of town.  This is the setting for some wonderful scenes of afternoon tea with Mrs Hutchence, the school teacher Mr Abbot, the McIvor girls and Gemmy, Leona – who lives with Mrs Hutchence – and Hec Gosper, one of the villagers.  The interplay between characters is superb.  Mrs Hutchence also introduces Janet McIvor to the world of bees and beekeeping.  We are witness to a beautiful scene of the bees from Janet’s point of view, and we see the bees as a metaphor for the aboriginals in a way too, for Mrs Hutchence and the hives “which looked so closed and quiet under the trees but were filled with such fierce activity – another life, quite independent of their human one, but organised, purposeful, and involving so many complex rituals.  She loved the way, while you were dealing with them, you had to submit to their side of things”.  Soon after, it is the sound of the bees and the making of honey which Malouf delightfully explores, culminating in the event that is the making of Janet.

Gemmy, though, living in a small room in Hutchence house, sees his separation grow larger.  He is separated from Lachlan and the division between them grows.  He feels his tale, which was dictated by Mr Frazer to Mr Abbot and written down on seven pieces of paper soon after he had arrived in the settlement, has begun to steal his spirit, and he sets out to find the pages again, to reclaim them and his spirit.  It is here we are reminded of his separation once again, for the mean-spirited Mr Abbot gives him seven pieces of paper which have school-children’s scribbles on them rather than his own story.  Being illiterate, Gemmy takes these with him into the bush thinking they are his story, where, in the first rain storm he soon encounters, the words upon them turn into wash and run off the page and they soon turn into pulp and dissolve in his hands, much as Gemmy has dissolved back into the bush himself.

The final chapter sees us transported years into the future, during the first world war, where the estranged Lachlan, now a minister in the government, and Janet, who has become a nun, are re-united because of a humorous scandal based on letters that Janet has sent a priest, written in the code of beekeeping which are misconstrued as the encoded work of a German spy.  It is once again proof that a sense of misguided panic and ignorance pursues many human encounters, be they the intersection of black and white, or the keeping of bees.  It is in this re-uniting that Lachlan and Janet recall the influence Gemmy has had on them.  For Lachlan, who has spent many years working on the coastal highway, it was the long search for Gemmy, and how he decided on one of these explorations that he had found his bones alongside seven or eight others, victims of a ‘dispersal’ – “too slight an affair to be called a massacre” and one the newspapers didn’t pick up; but now he realises he can’t tie Gemmy up like a loose end, for he had “touched off in them … (something) they were still living”, and would end “only when they were ended, and maybe not even then.”  For Janet, she is still fixated on the day that Gemmy first came to them, and the moment he had “hung there against the pulsing sky as if undecided as yet which way to move, upward in flight into the sun or, as some imbalance in its own body, its heart perhaps, drew it, or the earth, or the power of their gazing, downward to where they stood rooted”, and while he was up there on the fence, she realises that she has “never seen anyone clearer in all my life.  All that he was.  All.”  It is this moment of Gemmy held against the sky that they will both return to: “and stand side by side looking up at the figure outlined there against a streaming sky.  Still balanced.  For a last moment held still by their gaze, their solemn and fearful attention, at the one clear point, till this last, where they were inextricably joined and would always be.”

For me, this is perhaps where the book could have ended, two pages from its actual end.  It is my only ultra slight quibble and one that is eclipsed perhaps by Janet’s moving prayer on the final page where she asks: “Let none be left in the dark or out of mind, on this night, now, in this corner of the world or any other, at this hour, in the middle of this war…” for: “As we approach prayer.  As we approach knowledge.  As we approach one another.”  It is a prayer we might all share in our reflection on the intersection of black and white, of the treatment of outsiders, a prayer that goes beyond our remote borders, one that travels to the heart of all divisions, and how we might overcome them.

One other point worth noting is the beautiful cover art on this Vintage Classics edition.  It depicts, in a blue-porcelain-style ink, a scene of the established family of blue birds, the adults protecting their young, from a sole swooping orange-brown bird who, like Gemmy, is stuck their in mid-air, an outsider, attempting entry into a life once his that is now alien and unavailable.  It is the perfect cover art for this story, delicate, thoughtful and poignant; it makes a mockery of the often glib approach assumed by other covers.  Remembering Babylon is a book you want to hold in your hands and admire, literally, from cover to cover.

Remembering Babylon by David Malouf

Vintage Classics (Australia)

ISBN: 9781741667684

182 pages

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Just released: Australian Book Review’s readers’ poll of favourite Australian fiction which lists the top 20 voted-for books.  Not surprisingly, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet tops the poll.  Number two is The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson, a trilogy The Dilettante is unfamiliar with, but must now be added to the TBR list.  The bronze medal as-it-were was given to Voss by Patrick White, a truly great read.  Polls like this are sometimes ‘polluted’ by more recent works which are fresh in the minds of readers, but are not worthy of such high placings on an ‘all-time’ list such as this.  Breath by Winton, for instance, places a very high fourth – it will be interesting to wait for the next such poll a few years down the road to see if this still rates so highly.  Good to see the much-maligned Patrick White has three works in the top 20.  Murray Bail, David Malouf, Kate Grenville, Peter Carey all get a slot in the top 20 too, although I’m disappointed Carey’s Illywhacker is not present as this is a personal favourite of mine. 

Of course, this is what these polls are all about – insight mixed with a bit of fun; a chance to debate and discuss.  For what it’s worth, my top three would be Illywhacker, Cloudstreet & Voss, but as to which order I would opt for, well that is too hard a decision for a Libran like The Dilettante to decide upon!; (I’d also add that David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon is quickly becomming a top three choice).

What’s your favourite Australian novel?  Let me know!

The Dilettante

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