Fiction – Kindle edition; Hachette Australia; 304 pages; 2017.
Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius is a damning portrait of colonial settlement in Australia.
Told through a series of intertwined narratives, it seems to mimic the history of aboriginal dispossession at the hands of white settlers, but a clever twist about a third of the way through indicates the story is about something else entirely — and the revelation is unsettling if you’re not expecting it.
(I’m not going to be more specific than that; I already fear I’ve given too much of the plot away.)
Shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize, this novel gets full marks for originality, but I’m afraid I didn’t really warm to the story. Whenever I put it down, I was loath to pick it up again. And yet I so wanted to love this book. I bought it long before its prize listing because it had received such great reviews and I had saved it up for months, waiting for the right time and place to begin reading it.
Why I didn’t love this book
I think my main issue is that I didn’t really connect with any of the characters, even those I liked and would normally want to cheer on, such as Jacky Jerramungup, the fugitive on the run from the homestead where he’d been held as a slave. Perhaps it’s because all the characters were poorly drawn; they lacked depth and had little to no interior life, making it hard to understand their motivations or beliefs. Some were even horrendously clichéd, such as the horrid bad nun, Sister Bagra, who treats the stolen children in her care with cruelty and inhumanity.
And for a book that has an important message to impart — about “otherness” and subjugation of indigenous peoples — a message that needs to be told, it just felt too heavy-handed, too obvious. I suspect that was deliberate because the author thought there was no room for nuance in the story she wanted to tell.
I also thought the novel was too long, too repetitive and the pacing was too slow. The bulk of the narrative is a chase story — a man on the run from the law — but it seems to take forever to get to the climax. The editor in me reckons it could easily have been told in half the number of pages and perhaps it might have been even better as a short story.
What I did appreciate
But what I did like was Coleman’s writing, which is stripped back and almost devoid of adjectives unless they’re absolutely necessary. Her descriptions of the landscape, in particular, and the Australian climate are vivid and wonderfully alive. She describes dawn as “tentative tendrils of light”, rugged woodland as full of “dripping trees and scratching, tangling, grabbing bushes”, the heat as being strong enough to “melt the new paint off your walls”.
And I appreciate the way she takes history — including all the ugly bits that have shaped white and black relations in Australia — and presents it as something new, as something revelatory, as something that should make all of us sit up and listen: what if this had happened to us and not them?
So yes, there’s no doubting that Terra Nullius is a powerful book and an important one, but while I appreciate the author’s aims and her motivations, it just didn’t work for me.