‘Taboo’ by Kim Scott

Taboo by Kim Scott

Fiction – paperback; Picador Australia; 276 pages; 2017.

Kim Scott is a two-time winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award and his latest novel, Taboo, has been shortlisted for this year’s prize.

A descendant of the Noongar people of Western Australia, he is an indigenous writer whose work tends to focus on aboriginal identity and the sometimes strained relations between black and white Australians.

Taboo is no exception. Set in Noongar country, it examines the thorny issue of reconciliation: after so much bloody and violent history, how can white Australians and indigenous Australians make their peace?

This dilemma is neatly summed up in the book’s opening paragraph:

Our hometown was a massacre place. People called it taboo. They said it is haunted and you will get sick if you go there. Others just bragged: we shot you and poisoned the waterholes so you never come back.

Told in the third person, but largely through the eyes of a teenage girl, Tilly, the book focuses on plans to open a Peace Park in the Western Australian (fictional) town of Kepalup as a form of reconciliation. Just outside the town lies a farm, owned by widower Dan Horton, where Dan’s ancestors murdered Tilly’s in the late 19th century.  (By a stroke of coincidence — and there are many in this novel, it has to be said — Tilly was fostered by the Hortons when she was a young child.)

Dan, a devout Christian, wants to pursue his late wife’s dream to invite the Noongar onto the farm, to “reconcile themselves to what happened here”. He is more dismissive, thinking it was a long time ago and “there was no real evidence of any more than a few Aborigines being killed”.

A haunting tale

It’s fair to say that this massacre haunts the pages of this novel; a ghostly spectre that reminds us that modern Australia is built on horrific foundations. The story is also haunted by the long arm of dispossession, and the devastating impact on people when their cultural identity has been stripped from them.

In places it makes for depressing reading. Pretty much every indigenous character in this novel is struggling with an addiction, whether drugs or alcohol, and many have been in prison for violence and petty thievery.

Tilly’s back story is particularly horrific. Raised by a white mother, when she’s a teenager she learns that her father is an Aborigine, the legendary Jim Coolman, who’s serving time in prison. Drawn into the orbit of her new family, Tilly falls prey to a (white) violent sexual predator who feeds her drugs, ties her to a leash and treats her like a dog.

But there is hope here, too, for when Tilly eventually escapes she grabs a rare chance to make something of herself: she wins a scholarship to a boarding school, settles down to a life of some normality and is welcomed into the arms of her (extended) Aboriginal family.

A trippy novel

In his afterword, Scott describes Taboo as a “trippy, stumbling sort of genre-hop that I think features a trace of Fairy Tale, a touch of Gothic, a sufficiency of the ubiquitous Social Realism and perhaps a touch of Creation Story”. And he’s right: at times it does feel “trippy” and, I’d argue, slightly patchy and uneven in places. The second third of the novel feels a bit baggy and seems to lose direction after a solid, intriguing and page-turning first third.

That said, this is by far Scott’s most accessible novel — the language is slightly pared back compared with the complex Benang, for instance — and it feels particularly modern and relevant.

Despite the sometimes oppressive nature of the story, it brims with optimism. Scott is careful not to make this a revenge story — “Our people gave up on that Payback stuff a long time ago” — and instead chooses to focus on how it is possible for people to “claim back” their identity, largely through the use of the Noongar language (see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers for her excellent dissection of this issue).

He’s also not afraid to highlight, tongue-in-cheek style, the ignorance of some white Australians about Aboriginal culture. For instance, when Tilly meets her Aboriginal Support Officer for the first time, the officer is shocked that Tilly is Aboriginal. “Gee, with some of you it’s hard to tell,” she says. And later when Tilly tells her that the Noongar don’t play didgeridoo, the officer is dismissive: “Didgeridoo means Aborigine to everyone, surely.”

For another take on this novel, please see Bill’s review at The Australian Legend.

This is my 3rd book for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2018 and my 4th for #20booksofsummer. It also qualifies for ANZ LitLovers’ Indigenous Literature Week(July 8-15 2018). I bought this one from Readings.com.au last year because I suspected it would never be published here in the UK and, having read Scott’s earlier work, I wanted to read it as soon as I could. Alas… it took me eight months to get around to it.

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12 thoughts on “‘Taboo’ by Kim Scott

  1. Pingback: The 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist – Reading Matters

  2. Pingback: 20 books of summer — 2018 edition – Reading Matters

  3. Hello Kim, thank you for linking to #IndigLitWeek, this is a great review:)
    Re the ‘trippiness’ of the writing: yes, it can take away from its readability, but I think that raises an interesting issue that applies to all kinds of books. Scott says he did it deliberately, so it’s not a lack of skill: it’s an authorial choice to make a point about the fractured experience of being Aboriginal in Australia. (I am especially conscious of this right now because I’m reading Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia edited by Anita Heiss).
    So the issue is: when a writer takes a fractured approach of whatever kind and for whatever reason, it brings with it a risk that the reader will reject it as too hard to follow, misunderstand it as a deliberate choice, judge it as an author’s lack of skill or ascribe motives to it that are wrong. Or just not like it, which is always the reader’s prerogative. So the author, who thinks he has something important to communicate (or he wouldn’t be writing the book) risks alienating perhaps the very people he wants his message to reach. OTOH to write a straightforward narrative that is more accessible means not using one of the tools in the writer’s armoury.

    I am, as always, writing a novel in my head, and I am struggling with how best to tell it so this is an issue that’s relevant to me!

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    • Interesting to hear Scott’s “trippiness” is a planned device… it totally explains the unusual structure of That Deadman Dance, which I found difficult to follow, and Benang, although I loved that novel and “got” the fractured nature of the storyline. It works well, here, too, but I think it’s much less apparent than those two earlier novels… this one felt like a much more straightforward narrative, with just a few jumps backwards and forwards in time; it was more the pacing that felt uneven rather than anything else.

      BTW, I can’t wait to read your novel when you finally get it out of your head! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ Litlovers 2018 | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  5. Thanks for the link. Scott is one of my favourite authors though I must say I too found this novel ‘patchy’, and perhaps he won’t ever again reach the heights of Benang. I would also like to emphasize, particularly to your non Australian readers that the massacre underlying Taboo is real, Scott has been dealing with it ever since he was introduced to his father’s people.

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  6. I finished this book today so I’m still trying to pull my thoughts together. I agree that the storyline was patchy and there were a few too many co-incidences. However I felt a real connection with this novel – the descriptions of place were so well rendered as was the pull and healing nature of culture. I felt like I was given a secret insight into what it was like to be of Aboriginal decent and not many writers can do that!

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    • Totally agree… I loved the insights into Aboriginal culture, the concept of “country”, the difficulties with navigating two different identities, the passion/dedication required to save language etc — it’s a story that will stay with me for a long time. I even liked the “magic realism” bits, but I think I’m used to them appearing in Scott\s novels now so they didn’t catch me off guard…

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