Category Archives: Book reviews

Taboo by Kim Scott

Taboo starts with an out-of-control semi trailer freewheeling down a street, a hillside, spilling wheat, two humans and a skeleton as it crests to a stop in ‘massacre place.’ It is a powerful beginning tempered with a warning from its author – ‘this is no fairy tale, it is drawn from real life.’ In his Afterword, Scott concedes that his fiction touches on ‘real events, people and landscape.’ Storytelling, particularly in the hands of someone as accomplished as Kim Scott, will always be a political act, and this story is no exception. As a work of fiction, it is incomparable; as a work of fiction based loosely on real life, it is devastating.

West Australian writers often feature landscape as a character in their fiction. Tim Winton, Craig Silvey and Scott himself in earlier works. The landscape in Taboo is more than a ‘character’ though. Taboo’s landscape is particular, intense and deeply intuitive, holding and excluding its inhabitants alternately. Whether he’s describing the old woman concealed within bougainvillea, or the way people become fragments in ‘scattered shards of sunlight,’ Scott’s landscape moves, speaks and encourages the reader to see differently. Trees conceal scars, bristle when a bus approaches and toss their noisy leaves when a thunderstorm threatens. Wind, rain and evening shadows exhale, shred and roar. And yet this is not an alien landscape, not deliberately positioned as either malign or benign. This is landscape as part of the universe, just as we are, in all our flawed, occasionally heroic and mostly despairing lives.

And it is on those flawed lives that Scott’s eye lingers. The young woman who emerges from the runaway truck, Tilly, brave and resilient perhaps or filled with secret harm, is the pivot around whom the stories turn. Her white mother and Aboriginal father are both dead and she has returned to that place, the massacre place where her ancestors, her foster father and his son would claim her, and she must resist these claims. Is she the wrong girl, the girl who must not be touched or given, or is she the product of her environment and displacement? The rag tag band of hopefuls who journey towards reconciliation, for the opening of a Peace Park, hold her in their midst, sensing the disquiet but unable to heal. Because the country itself is frizzing with discontent; weeds, stones, gullies, rocks erupting, punching and lunging about in ‘an enormous space. The big old sky above.’

Landscape becomes language in Scott’s unerring hands. In what appears to be a deliberate and enticing device, the people in this story speak the ‘old language,’ which is mostly referred to as such; ‘Gerald spoke its name in the old language.’ Parrots, eagles and cockatoos all speak, as do earth and sky and bolts of lightening. The old people and the young ones who watch them, speak in circular ways, familiar to those who come from oral storytelling traditions. And they speak ‘now and in the future, the drunks and addicts, the old people and their carers and all those otherwise lost but wanting to help.’ Scott’s people describe generational despair and sit within their losses. Their tears rise and meet the sea. They understand what it means to be Noongar, ‘proper Noongar things, not museum made-up stuff.’ Their grief manifests itself in language that recognises they could have done things differently. Breath and feeling and fire sing them to language.

The novel ends as it begins, reminding the reader of the circularity of stories, how beginnings and endings are shaped by intent and weighed by landscape. It is a story of dispossession, abuse, colonialism, addiction and racism. Scott’s prose is lyrical as well as melancholy. He reminds us of the importance of bearing witness with unflinching precision. The men and women who walk through these pages are startlingly aware of their failings and equally forgiving of those failings in others. There are no quick fixes and the story vacillates between despair and hope. Yet this is not a grim story. The lucidity of its prose lifts it beyond the despair in its pages and reminds us that there are no perfect words and no easy resolutions to the trials of our First Nations people. Matilda-Tilly, girl-woman, both descendant and ancestress, haunted me in the way that fully realised figures in fiction and memoir often do; reminding me of Amanda Curtin’s Meggie in Elemental and the young Sally Morgan in My Place. This book needs to be read, reviewed, discussed and recommended widely. My life is richer for it.

Publisher: Picador, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Review: Veils, Halos and Shackles

 

Book Review: Charles Ades Fishman & Smita Sahay’s ‘Veils, Halos & Shackles’

The books I loved in 2015

2015 was the year I submitted my PhD and the year I intended to read ‘differently.’ I wanted to step out of my comfort zone by reading writers I had never read, or had not read for a long time. For several years now, my focus, while reading fiction and memoir, has been to read Australian women, followed closely by Indian and Iranian women. I thought I should make an extra effort to read more books by men, especially men of colour. I decided to make 2015 the year of reading more of the world, particularly because I knew I would be attending the Edinburgh Writers Festival in August.

I started the year by reading four American and one Canadian writer. Teju Cole’s Open City is about a Nigerian doctor who walks the streets of Manhattan, seemingly aimlessly, and encounters his past and present lives. A meditation on identity, race and love, this is a deeply introspective and cerebral novel.

I followed this by reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild. Strayed walked in far more inhospitable terrain than the streets of New York. She trekked 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail along the west coast of America, after her mother’s death from cancer. It’s honest, funny and difficult and details the casual misogyny she faces along the way.

Junot Diaz’s This is how you lose her, is a hybrid beast of a novel that reads like memoir, especially because the author/narrator, Junot/Yunior appear interchangeable and mercurial. The language and themes are often confronting but also poetic.

Finally, Toni Morrison’s Home rounded off the quartet of Americans I had decided to read. Morrison’s spare, elegant and devastating prose quietly tells the story of a black soldier returning home in 1950s America. “There was no goal other than breathing, nothing to win and, save for someone else’s quiet death, nothing to survive or worth surviving for.” Sentences like these mark the brutal emotional landscape of Morrison’s characters.

Padma Viswanathan’s novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, takes its inspiration from the real life tragedy of the Air India flight which exploded over the Irish Sea in 1985. It was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and you can read my longer review, published in Westerly.

The Edinburgh Writers Festival in August 2015 introduced me to a raft of writers, both Scottish and international and despite taking virtually empty suitcases to stuff with books, there is a limit on how many you can lug around a little island for 4 weeks. I was pleased (and guilty) that I bought 14 books, and could have bought a dozen more. Here are some of the books I bought and read.

Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel The Fishermen is rightly described as magnificent and remarkable. There is a strong dream-like quality to the storytelling but the story itself is grounded in tangible things like family secrets and nation building.

In Edinburgh, I listened to Val McDermid perform her stunning short story, The Road and the Miles to Dundee, from her collection, Stranded. I read, too, her re-telling of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, set during the Edinburgh Festival, a delightful and easy read. And I bought poetry, lots of it, Auden, Morgan, Burns; in Scotland it seemed impossible not to – the landscape demanded it and I obeyed.

Finally, my world literature list would not be complete without Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. A beautiful, clever, poetic, maddening book – fitting sequel to that other equally maddening Life After Life. I can’t wait to read what she writes next.

Then, it was time to come home. I finished the year with 4 stunning Australian women writers. The first of these was Karen Overman-Edmiston and The Avenue of Eternal Tranquillity. A richly philosophical novel about the vagaries of chance meetings and deep love, snow-bound landscapes and heartfelt conversations, this is a reflective and gentle book, almost languorous in its unfolding tragedy and hope.

In stark contrast is Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. This novel has been described as a howl of despair and fury, and it is a fair description. I have never read anything like it and I don’t suppose I ever will. It is chilling, furious and brutal and it requires emotional strength to finish reading it. But I had no doubt whatsoever that the dystopian world these characters inhabit is real, or has the potential to be. As a woman, it was a reminder that men can and will hunt, capture and control women if they are not stopped. Read Karen’s excellent review here.

S.A Jones’s novel Isabelle of the Moon & Stars is beautifully West Australian in its evocation of how fraught our lovely city can be for a young woman battling her ‘dark place.’ I fell in love with Isabelle and Evan and was reluctant to let them out of my life and was only able to do so when another delicious book appeared – Susan Midalia’s third short story collection, Feet To The Stars. The stories in this collection glow with intelligence, humour and compassion; a different, refracted light shines on each story. The title story of the collection explores the relationship between a teacher and his student, full of insights, dark truths and hope. It’s hard to pick a favourite so I’ll pick three – Feet to the Stars, Inner Life and Because were the ones I went back to.

There were several other books I read, and not all of them were wonderful. I realised something I’ve always known, as the song goes – that I feel most at home when I read Australian (women) writers. The further I travel, the more I need to come home to them.