Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 320 pages; 2020.
Love and loss, the goldfields of Kalgoorlie, growing up in outback Australia, and strained relationships between sisters all feature heavily in Gail Jones’ latest novel Our Shadows.
This gently nuanced novel is largely set in the outback gold mining town of Kalgoorlie, about 600km east of Perth, in Western Australia.
Against this dramatic landscape, we follow the lives of two sisters, Nell and Frances, who are raised by their grandparents following the death of their mother sometime in the 1980s. (Their father flees — whether from shock or grief or a refusal to be responsible for his two daughters, we don’t know — and is never seen again.)
It charts the closeness of their childhood, united in orphanhood and by a love of art, reading and a desire to visit the sea. (The print of Japanese artist Hokusai’s The Great Wave, part of which is reproduced on the book’s cover, plays a key role in their childhood fantasy to one day paddle in the ocean.)
But when the book opens, the sisters, vastly different in temperament and personality, are now 30-something adults living in Sydney and they are estranged. Frances, the introverted one, is a widow, her husband having died from mesothelioma, an excruciating lung disease, and her days are now spent visiting her grandmother, Else, who has dementia and lives in a nursing home.
The plot, which is is split into two parts, largely focuses on the sisters’ relationship, how it splintered and whether it can be repaired. It looks at the history of their parents (how they met, fell in love and got married) and their maternal grandparents (who, bowed by grief, had to raise their daughter’s children) to create a beguiling portrait of three generations of the one family.
The second part of the novel looks at Frances’ return to Kalgoorlie to rediscover her roots and find out more about the father she never knew.
Interleaved through this story of an outback family is another story — that of the real-life Irishman, Paddy Hannan, who was the first to discover gold in Kalgoorlie in 1893 and is largely known as the founder of the town.
An unexpected treat
Admittedly I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with this author. I have read four of Gail Jones’ books now and fallen in love with some titles (Five Bells and Sixty Lights), felt lukewarm about others (A Guide to Berlin) and not liked very much at all (Sorry), so I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one. I didn’t have to worry. This was an unexpected treat.
I read Our Shadows on the seven-hour train ride back from Kalgoorlie, having visited for a few days earlier this month, and it certainly captured the feeling of this outback gold mining town with its super-wide streets (so that camel trains could turn around), rich colonial architecture and mining infrastructure, including the super pit gold mine, which is referenced a lot in the story (see my pictures below).
The Super Pit was visible from space. Everyone said so. She remembered the day of the inauguration, the mayor, the mining officials, the politicians in their grey suits, the way her class had to stand in the sun, squinting in lines on a dais, and sing the national anthem. As a child she imagined herself in space with a small rocket strapped to her back; she would look down and see the Super Pit reduced to a dark blot. It reassured her to imagine in this way, lofty and unconcerned.
There’s always something about reading a book set in a place you have visited (or are visiting) that makes the story resonate more, and that was certainly the case with this one.
As ever, Jones’ work is subtle, her writing polished and poetic, and she is an expert at nuance, expertly capturing moods, expressions and the interconnectedness between people that makes life so rich and varied. Her descriptions of people, places and time periods are evocative and her characters all-too-human, flawed but believable.
Our Shadows is not a fast-paced novel and, as such, it is not one to race through. Instead, it’s one to linger over, to savour the language and the feelings the story evokes.