‘That Deadman Dance’ by Kim Scott

That-Deadman-Dance

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury Circus; 416 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

If there was one book I was really looking forward to in 2012 it was Kim Scott‘s That Deadman Dance, which had been published in Australia to critical acclaim in 2010. Prior to its long-awaited publication in the UK last October, it had gone on to win almost every award going in the antipodes, including the 2011 Regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the 2011 Miles Franklin Literary Award and the 2011 Australian Literary Society Gold Medal.

But perhaps that weight of expectation proved too heavy for me, because I found myself struggling to enjoy this book, even though I very much appreciated Scott’s “message” and his thoughtful, often beautiful prose.

First contact between black and white

The story, which is set on the south-west coast of Western Australia in the mid-19th century, charts the colonisation of the land by white settlers and the impact of their arrival on the native inhabitants, the aboriginal Noongar people.

Scott, who is a descendant of the Noongar, is more than authorised to tell this tale, which shows how an initial spirit of co-operation between the two groups sadly erodes over time.

The Europeans, once outnumbered by their aboriginal counterparts, become dominant and all-powerful as the settlement takes shape and new buildings, new roads and new systems of governance are put into place. As the population grows and more people arrive from the motherland, the Noongar are no longer viewed as equals but as a threat — in all kinds of ways.

By comparison, the Noongar, a resourceful and welcoming people who had initially embraced their new visitors and their strange ways, find that the land which had sustained them for thousands of years has now been parcelled off into farms for crop and meat production and they are no longer free to roam it. Their incomprehension is only matched by the white settler’s fury when sheep and other food is stolen from them.

This almost imperceptible shift in power is what makes this book so fascinating, because at what point did it go wrong? What would modern Australia be like if black and white relations had not broken down in this terrible way?

Unusual structure

The book is structured in an unusual way — and I think this is probably why I struggled to enjoy it. It is divided into four parts, which are not arranged in chronological order — for instance, we start in 1835, before going back to 1826-1830, then we move forward to1836-1838 before jumping forward again to 1841-1844.

There’s not much of a plot either (except, of course, the breakdown in black and white relations) and there’s not really a main character with which the reader can identify. While much of the narrative revolves around Bobby Wabalanginy, a young aborigine, who has a remarkable gift for mimicry and learning new languages, Scott provides a range of perspectives, so we get to see things through the eyes of a vast array of characters, including Dr Cross, Bobby’s uncle Mendak, the Chaine family from Britain and former soldier Alexander Killam.

It is this constant jumping around (many of the chapters are very short) from person to person and from one time frame to another, that complicates the narrative. And despite this almost schizophrenic approach, I did occasionally find that the storyline lagged.

Portrait of Australia’s past

Of course, it’s not a bad novel and I’d urge anyone who is interested in Australia’s early history and its landscape to give it a try. Scott’s prose is wonderfully evocative, particularly of the bush and the ocean, and his descriptions of the whaling ships and the whaling industry — which becomes such a dominant force along this part of the coast — is rich and eloquent.

The strength of the story lies mainly in its examination of how the values of the colonisers were at odds with that of the Noongar — a dilemma that remains unreconciled to this day. But Scott does this in such a gentle, nuanced way that the full force of his detailed portrait of white arrogance and ignorance, coupled with black incomprehension and despair, doesn’t fully hit you until you come right to the end of the novel.

I came away from the last page feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness, best summed up in this quote (from page 109):

We thought making friends was the best thing, and never knew that when we
took your flour and sugar and tea and blankets that we’d lose everything
of ours. We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew
you didn’t want ours…

For a different take on this book, please see the reviews at ANZLitlovers, Tony’s Reading List and Book Sexy Review.

A note of warning: the blurb on my edition suggests this novel is a romantic tale between an aboriginal man and a white woman, but that paints a false premise. While there is a short romance between Bobby and Chaine’s daughter, this is not the central focus of the novel.

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13 thoughts on “‘That Deadman Dance’ by Kim Scott

  1. I reviewed this for Bookmunch and I hurled it across the kitchen when I’d done with it. I thought it was boring. That Scott had written about issues rather than someone’s story and there was no one character to empathise with or at least see the story through.

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  2. I was looking forward to this book so much that I actually ordered a copy from New Zealand. I think my expectations were too high too. I was so disappointed that I abandoned it. I’m actually quite pleased to see that you aren’t raving about it too.

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  3. That’s the problem with Australian literature. I feel as if the awards go to a novel’s “message” over anything else. I hate to say this, but I struggled to enjoy the award winning “The Slap”, for example. Same with “The Boat”. I appreciated and agreed with their messages, but as far as being interesting goes, they didn’t do it for me.

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  4. Why on earth would they blurb a hint at a romance for this book.
    I did really enjoy this, although I can appreciate your comments about the narrative jumping around and being a little confusing at times.

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  5. oh rather pleased I didn’t get sent this had asked for it but was over a year ago when it first won fankli and knew was coming her ,although part of the plot still appeals the meeting of two worlds ,all the best stu

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  6. I remember you saying you’d imported this book — it must have cost a fortune in shipping costs alone! Sorry it didn’t pay off for you. I had wondered whether you had read it and searched your site but couldn’t find it… now I know why.

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  7. I think The Slap is one of those books you either love or hate. (I loved it.) Not read The Boat, but I do have a copy of it. Interesting to hear you didn’t enjoy it.

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  8. I’m not sure about the blurb thing. Perhaps it was an editor who didn’t quite know how to “sell” such a disjointed story and they had to hang it on something? Whatever the case, it’s totally misleading…

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  9. I suspect you might actually like this, Stu, because it presents a story that has remained untold (ie. that black and white got along in the early days; we were always taught they were violent towards each othehr from the very start) and I know how much you enjoy reading other voices. Maybe you could borrow it from the library?

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  10. Oh what a shame Kimbofo — I loved this book too (and have reviewed it). I enjoyed the tone and the language … but as you say you do have to keep your wits about you as you read to work out where you are in terms of time and place. The critical question is where did it go wrong, but I think the book answers it in terms of the colonisers’ determination to have the land they wanted to do what they saw as more important things with it.
    You might appreciate knowing that there were a few in my reading group who were pretty underwhelmed with the book too … we had a very lively discussion!
    (BTW I pretty much opened my review with the quote you used near the end … it’s a great quote!)

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