Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 218 pages; 2008.
Gail Jones‘ fourth novel, Sorry,has been shortlisted for this year’s Orange Prize as well as the Miles Franklin Award. Even before it was nominated for these prestigious literary prizes, I was looking forward to reading it. I gave Sixty Lights a glowing five-star review way back in 2006, so I expected high things from Jones’ new one and promptly ordered a copy from Amazon as soon as it was available in paperback.
But Sorry was disappointing. I wanted to love it. I wanted to find it so brilliantly readable I would find it impossible to put down. Instead, it was the opposite: I’d put it down and then find it almost impossible to pick up. This bugged me, because I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason for my unwillingness to finish the book. And then it occurred to me: I simply did not like any of the characters, a cast of kooky, unlovable and deeply confused people that, quite frankly, annoyed the hell out of me.
Is this a shallow reason for not liking a book? Probably.
That said, Sorry deals with some big themes, not the least of which is Australia’s shameful past treatment of Aboriginals in which children were taken from their families and raised with whites, what we now know as the “stolen generations“. Jones’ book is, indeed, timely, given that the country’s newly elected Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, recently apologised for a (now defunct) Government Policy that ruined so many lives and caused so much heartache and pain.
The story, which is set in the remote outback of Western Australia during the Second World War, deals with this issue in a rather oblique way. Indeed, many readers, particularly those who know nothing of this dark history, may not even pick up on it — although Jones provides a helpful, if slightly cloying, explanation of it in her acknowledgment at the end of the book.
The novel opens with the central character Perdita telling the story of her childhood in the Australian wilderness. Her parents, Nicholas and Stella, are English immigrants. Both are relatively complicated characters with a love of literature — their shack in the outback is filled to the brim with books, all imported from the Mother country — but their relationship is a loveless one. Indeed, Nicholas secretly engages in sexual relations with aboriginal women, while his wife slips into a dark depression (she is hospitalised on more than one occasion) and becomes increasingly obsessed by Shakespeare’s work.
Perdita, often left to her own devices, makes friends with Mary, an aboriginal teenager from an orphanage, who comes to live with them as the “hired help”. Their relationship becomes an especially close one, almost as if they are sisters.
It would remain wholly separate, Perdita’s time with Mary. There was something implacable, sure, about what they shared. Mary was by turns girlish and adult, but she looked after Perdita, daily attending her, offering companionship, knowledge and caring advice. She taught her poker (how to shuffle, to deal, how finally, to cheat), desert songs (learned from her mother from whom she’d been taken), and the lives of the saints (the strange details of which she had read about in the orphanage).
But this tender relationship — and one of the strengths of the book, it has to be said — comes to an abrupt end when Nicholas is brutally murdered one dark night.
It’s no plot spoiler to say that Perdita’s life is changed from then on, but I felt that the death came too early in the story (less than half-way through), because the book loses momentum after this dramatic event. I struggled to complete it, because although the murderer is not immediately obvious I’d already guessed who it was (the product of reading too many crime thrillers, perhaps?) and so I found the remaining 120-plus pages a bit of a drag — although the ending is a powerful, heart-wrenching one.
To suggest that Sorry is a little bit of a bore, a little dull, may be harsh, especially given that I simply cannot fault Jones beautiful, poetic prose, her pitch-perfect descriptions of the Australian bush and the sheer isolation of the country, far removed from the horrific events of the war in Europe. But the story lacks a certain something, although I can’t quite put my finger on it aside from its decided lack of lovable characters. Perhaps it’s narrative drive? Perhaps it’s a properly structured story arc? Whatever the case, my overall opinion is that Sorry is a worthy book but not a brilliant one.