Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 364 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
How history is recorded and written, what is left out and what is exaggerated for effect, and how it is passed down, forms the central theme of this debut novel by Australian journalist Paul Daley.
Jesustown, which is set on a former mission town in remote Australia, is an attempt at post-colonial truth-telling even though it’s fiction and includes contemporary elements that feel a bit cheesy.
The author, in his afterword, says it’s “informed by some actual events that occurred across this continent, but it is not history and shouldn’t be read as such”. Even so, in its depiction of frontier wars, the ways in which First Nations’ were decimated by disease, had human remains and art stolen by collectors, and then endured the theft of their children, there’s a bright ring of truth about it.
Bending the truth
The story is narrated by Patrick Renmark, an Australian-born, London-based historian who calls himself a “story-ist” — he has made a name for himself publishing bestselling low-brow books about explorers and sportsmen and other “heroes” — and thinks nothing of bending the truth if it serves the narrative.
When his marriage breaks down and his young son dies — a tragedy for which he is blamed and shamed — he flees to (fictional) Arcadia, in remote northern Australia, to work on a new project: writing a biography about his grandfather, who famously brokered “peace” between the Traditional Owners of the area and the local police and wore many different hats:
My grandfather — or Pa, as I called him — the feisty journalist. The great white anthropologist. The fearless explorer. The saviour of the last of the wild aborigines, as he liked to call himself. My grandfather, Nathaniel ‘Renny’ Renmark, the hero. My pa — the genius madman.
Renny has left behind an entire house rammed with disordered archival material, cassette tapes full of his spoken thoughts, Aboriginal artifacts and a published memoir, Black Men & White Lies: The Australian aborigine and me, which Patrick describes as “a self-serving and (typically) ungracious tome”.
Patrick reckons he can spin his grandfather’s story into another bestselling book but when he begins to sift through the archival material he realises it’s not quite that easy.
Jesustown includes Renny’s diary entries and transcripts of his tapes to build a picture of a complex man, who was eccentric and full of contradictions. He lived amongst the Indigenous population and grew to understand their ways and culture, defending them against those who would do them harm, but he also introduced sickness into the population and brought in some American anthropologists who were unscrupulous collectors of art and human remains.
As Patrick finds out more about the grandfather he hasn’t seen since he was a teenage boy, he tells his own story of shame and slowly reveals what happened to his marriage and his son. These two intertwined narrative threads build an interesting picture of inter-generational guilt, shame and legacy.
There’s no doubt that Jesustown has high ambitions to explore Australia’s complex and often violent and exploitative Black and white colonial past, but I’m not sure it succeeds.
The tone, for instance, feels off. Patrick’s voice is often satirical, ridiculing his own stupidity (mainly in relation to the sordid extramarital affair he conducts in London), but that tone jars against the heavier aspects of the story.
The earlier sections of the novel, in particular, where he lauds his career successes and sends up his own Australianness, are light-hearted and funny, but that mocking tone runs like an undercurrent throughout the entire narrative. It just feels counterproductive to the seriousness of Jesustown‘s bigger aims.
However, if you are looking for an “easy” way in to subjects as weighty as massacres, cultural theft and the entire subjugation of Australia’s First Nations people, then maybe this is a good place to start.
The novel’s exploration of history and storytelling and the ways in which the lines between fact and fiction are often blurred are also insightful.
11 thoughts on “‘Jesustown’ by Paul Daley”
It doesn’t look as if this will be released here till next yea. But I’ll look out for it then. It looks thought-provoking.
It is thought provoking but I had issues with it… He’s a great journo though and his pieces about indigenous history are always worth reading.
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Is this Paul Daley. the Guardian journalist? I agree with your unease. The whole thing sounds very #NotMeToo. We are still learning about Black Australians being massacred by whites, often led by the police and I don’t think it is the time to be looking for, let alone imagining, ‘good’ whitemen.
Yep, that’s the one. It’s not a bad book and I admire the themes, but the execution is a bit off and I came away from it wondering what Aboriginal readers would think of it. I found his Afterword intriguing; the fact he was stimulated to write the book after visiting the South Australian museum and seeing an entire room full of Aboriginal remains that had been stolen. I kinda wish he’d written about that instead.
Mr Books is struggling hios way through this, finding that the writing and the story hasn’t really come together for him. He tends to prefer plot driven books as opposed to introspective ones though.
It’s an uneven novel, I reckon. The London narrative is plot driven but it takes a long time to get going – and you don’t really find out what happens (the affair, the death of his son etc) until past the half-way point, which is a lot of pages to wade through. And the historical narrative, about his grandfather, is disjointed and jarring.
Yeah, I came across this a while ago, and it didn’t appeal.
At the Guardian Daley has a strong provocative tone on this and Anzac issues, which is interesting in small doses, but he rarely has anything new to contribute and he can be wearying.
I’ve only read a few of his pieces – and I liked them at the time – but haven’t read enough to make up my mind about him. I liked the sound of the novel and I can’t fault its ambitions and think it has some important things to say. But it’s very uneven and the tone of voice is too “blokey” and it feels too much like satire, which only takes away from the points he is trying to make.
Ah, I have just remember that I reviewed his Little Book on Patriotism, and I felt that his approach was intemperate. Of course there’s a place for anger, but it needs to be used strategically rather than just to score points, which IMO is his style.
When you live in Melbourne and you see how American divisiveness has got a foothold here — here! in Melbourne of all places!! — then you can see where I’m coming from in wanting people to meet in the middle rather than occupying bunkers on opposite sides.
Agreed. I have just undertaken a whole day of cultural awareness training run by an amazing Noongar man who says Black and white need to meet in the middle to move forward. It was a really inspiring day.
That would have been wonderful. I went to a two-day workshop run by Bruce Pascoe, and he said much the same thing. Some of the aggression we’ve seen lately is likely to do more harm than good, and it would be a tragedy if it gets people’s backs up and they then vote No. It will set back constitutional reform for years…