Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 400 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
I read Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland about a month before it was longlisted for the 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award. I’ve been in two minds about reviewing it, because it’s not available outside of Australia* — which makes it frustrating for those of you in the rest of the world who’d actually like to read it — but I’m hoping the prize listing might change that situation, for this is a superb book deserving of a wide (international) audience.
Set on the banks of Lake Illawarra in New South Wales, Storyland is essentially a fictionalised history of Australia, spanning four centuries. Its focus is very much on how people are shaped by the environments in which they live and vice versa — or, as one of the characters explains in the first chapter, “The land is a book waiting to be read. Learn to read it and you will never go hungry”.
It’s also a timely warning about how we treat the land and the indigenous people who know it best.
‘See that lake there,’ Uncle Ray says, looking along the side of his house to the water. ‘That was here before any of us, and the creek that runs down from the mountain into the lake, that was here too, and the mountain, and the trees, and the birds. We’re part of their story, not the other way around.’ ‘Like they were here first,’ I say. ‘You got it, like they were here first,’ Uncle Ray says. ‘But it’s our job to look after all this land around here. If we don’t, bad things can happen.’
Many of the reviews I have read online compare it to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas — a novel I thought showy and pretentious — but the only real similarity is the structure, for McKinnon’s tale weaves together five interlinking stories, from the late 18th century through to 2717 and then goes backwards in time to the beginning.
All the characters live on the same tract of land but at different time periods, a clever device that allows the author to show how development and progress changes a place, not always for the better.
The time periods and characters are:
- 1796: Will Martin, a 15-year-old cabin boy, onboard the Tom Thumb with real life explorers Matthew Flinders and George Bass when they discover Lake Illawarra, a large coastal lagoon, about 100km south of Sydney, which forms the setting for the rest of the novel.
- 1822, Hawker: a desperate ex-convict, who commits a horrendous crime against a local indigenous woman.
- 1900, Lola: a headstrong young woman who runs a dairy farm with her brother and sister, both of whom have indigenous blood and are subjected to horrific racist abuse and violence when a local girl goes missing.
- 1998, Bel: a 10-year-old girl, who spends one carefree summer rafting on the lagoon with two neighbourhood boys and then gets caught up in a dispute between a violent man and his girlfriend.
- 2033 & 2717, Nada: a woman whose world begins to crumble apart in a chilling — but believable — dystopian view of the future.
Throughout each of the five narrative threads, there are recurring motifs and landmarks — the lake, the shoreline, an ancient fig tree and a stone axe — which helps tie the stories together, and many of the characters are related across the generations. It’s fun trying to spot the connections.
But what really marks this novel as an exceptional one is McKinnon’s eloquent and haunting prose. She’s at her best when she describes landscapes and our connection to particular places, as the following quote demonstrates:
Darkness settles on the forest that runs alongside the field. Cornhusks quiver in the cooling breeze. In this place the heat of the day runs into a noisy night full of jumping beasts with luminous eyes. Here, the night does not entomb the earth, instead it breathes alive ghostly shadows, as if the buried are rising up.
Thematically, there’s a lot going on, including environmental destruction, racism and fear of the Other — just to name a few. I loved its subtle exploration of these issues and its examination of the stories that tie us to the land. The message, it would seem, is that the land (and nature) will outlive us all, but we need to learn to live according to its rules. It will always be here, even if we are not. We mistreat it at our peril.
Down through the trees I see the roof of our home. But what makes a home? Not wood, not bricks; safety, surely. The year that has just passed, all the news reports, protests, referendums, were about national security, or about individual safety, but as if the threat was elsewhere. Yet the biggest danger came from our home itself, only we didn’t know what our home was. We thought it was bricks and mortar, but a home is more than that, it is land and sea and sky.
* I scored my copy from the publisher who pitched it to me when it was released last year. I was sent an e-copy but this got lost somehow when I switched to a new Kindle in the summer and I only rediscovered it lurking in the Cloud quite recently. Apologies to the publisher for my tardiness in reviewing!