‘The Yield’ by Tara June Winch

Fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 344 pages; 2019.

If you live in Australia, you would probably have to be living under a rock not to know this novel by Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch. The Yield won this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award, arguably this country’s greatest literary prize, as well as the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. It has been shortlisted for numerous others, including the Stella Prize and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

It tells the story of August, a young Aboriginal woman, who returns home — after a decade living in London — to help bury her beloved grandfather, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi. Poppy was midway through writing a dictionary of his people’s language, but his work has gone missing and August is intent on finding it so that she can finish the task at hand. But back on country, August discovers there are bigger challenges ahead: her grandparents’ house is about to be repossessed by a mining company.

It’s a multi-layered, multi-generational story that revolves around grief, loss and dispossession, but teases out, gently but oh-so surely, what it is to be Aboriginal, to have a sense of identity, a true purpose and a language of one’s own.

I read this rather extraordinary novel earlier this year (as part of my #20BooksOfSummer challenge), but never got around to reviewing it mainly because I couldn’t find the words to do it justice. Since then, I have seen numerous other positive reviews online — Lisa’s from ANZLitLovers, Sue’s from Whispering Gums, Kate’s at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, and Brona’s at Brona’s Books — all of which are excellent summations of a truly excellent book.

Rather than repeat what others have said, I thought I would quickly describe three things I loved about this award-winning novel so that you get a flavour of what to expect.

1.The Structure

The book has three main narrative threads, which are told in alternate chapters: the first is August’s tale, told in the third-person, covering her homecoming and the pain and anguish she feels upon Poppy’s death, an event that triggers traumatic memories associated with the disappearance of her sister, Jedda, years earlier; the second is comprised purely of extracts from Poppy’s dictionary (more on this later) written in a conversational first-person voice; while the third is a handful of letters written in the early part of the 20th century by Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf, a German national who established and ran the mission (upon which the Goondawindi family live) in 1880.

This trio of storylines gives us different perspectives — spanning more than a century — on identity and the Aboriginal “problem”.

2.The Dictionary

Poppy’s dictionary, based on the language of the Wiradjuri people, is completely fascinating for anyone who loves words and language. Each entry reads like the sort of entry you’d expect to see in an established English dictionary, such as the Oxford or Macquarie, with the word bolded up and translated into English.

But the definition is written in a conversationalist tone, with Poppy telling a tale from his past revolving around that word. Through these dictionary entries, he is able to share his life story and the importance of culture and language to his being.

sap of trees — ‘dhalbu’ The dhalbu of the bloodwood tree saved some of the Gondiwindi. When we were being gathered up to be taken away and taught the Bible and be trained as labourers and domestic servants, my great aunties were frightened and ran. Tried to hide their light-skinned babies in the bush. Some did get away and were never seen again. And some couldn’t leave in time and disguised their babies as full-blood by painting them dark with the dhalbu. Some of them were later captured. They wander around the river that appears when I travel with the ancestors, blood and sap soaked, hiding in plain sight now but still frightened.

3.The immersive nature of the story

This probably sounds a bit vague, but reading this novel was a truly immersive experience in a way I have rarely known. It’s like a bit of “magic” happened inside my brain as I read it, because somewhere in my mind I was able to triangulate the three storylines to build up an almost complete picture of not only what had happened to the Gondiwindi family over a century of struggle and dispossession, but I could see how it had come about and how resilient these people had become.

I was able to see how the Reverend’s aims, so easily written off as racist when viewed through modern eyes, came from an essentially good, if seriously misguided, place; I could feel inspired by the ever-optimistic Poppy, who had defied everything that had been thrown at him because of the colour of his skin to lead a fulfilling life full of meaning and harbouring next to no bitterness; and I could empathise with August, who ran away from all she knew because that was the only way she could handle a personal tragedy.

For all these reasons, The Yield really is a triumph of storytelling. I particularly loved and admired the ambition of it.

The cover of the UK / USA edition

The Yield has already been published in the USA; it will be published in the UK next January.

This is my 14th book for #AWW2020 and my 14h book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it from my local indie book shop not long after it was first published last year. I hadn’t really heard much about it at the time; I was mainly attracted to the pretty cover adorned with pictures of brolgas. Shallow? Moi? Never!

20 thoughts on “‘The Yield’ by Tara June Winch

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer 2020 recap – Reading Matters

  2. Pingback: 2020 Stella Prize longlist – Reading Matters

    • Ah yes, I remember you mentioning that you had met her at the Jaipur Festival. She seems to get around to lots of festivals… I think you will really like this book when you eventually get around to reading it.

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  3. Your review weaves together the major strands of The Yield very well. I took longer to feel the pull of the three perspectives of the novel as one narrative – I kept wanting to get back to August – yet the structure works so well. It required me to give into it – yield, in fact – and find the immersion you describe. Thanks!

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    • Thank you, Marita. It can often be problematic when an author uses multiple voices in a novel because there’s always the tendency to prefer one voice over the other, but in this case I loved them all equally. Maybe that’s why the book worked so well for me.

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  4. Great write up Kim, I sometimes do this in reviews too, that is, just focus on a couple of things that stood out for me. Some books are so “big” that I think that’s better than trying to do justice to it all.

    I love the complexity of the characters, particularly Rev Greenleaf who can be “read” different ways historically versus now. And I loved the structure too. You can tell she pored over this book and how to write it, can’t you.

    Oh, and thanks for the link.

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    • I think I remember reading somewhere that this book took 10 years to write, so she obviously worked on it very carefully to ensure she got it “just right”. I imagine she felt a lot of pressure to get the dictionary aspect correct, because that’s the key to the whole novel and the preservation of a language is such a culturally important thing — the responsibility must have weighed on her heavily. I think she has done an amazing job.

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      • I wrote a bit about that on my blog… Referring to an event with her I’d attended. The ten yearswas partly to do with working out how to tell the story she wanted… And the help she got from a Nobel Laureate mentor. She’s a clever woman!

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  5. Thank you for the shout out Kim. It’s over a year since I read this book and it still lingers in my memory. Poppy’s dictionary, in particular stands out more and more as one of the highlights of this book and gives it that something extra special.

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    • The dictionary aspect is really the USP of this novel, I think, and as I have just replied to Sue (above) such a culturally important thing to get right. I think this story will live on in my mind for quite a long time, too. I might even give it a re-read because there’s so much in this book to chew on, I’m sure I’d discover new insights I missed first time round.

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  6. I don’t live under a rock so I’ve been feeling the Tara Winch pressure. I might give in (though I survived last year’s Trent Dalton pressure). It’s not important I know but I find the names intrusive. Goondiwindi is a well known town to truck drivers, and well outside the Wiradjuri area. Likewise Jedda was a famous movie – the first Australian movie made in colour – and set in NT, so again not Wiradjuri.

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