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‘Benevolence’ by Julie Janson

Fiction – Kindle edition; Magabala Books; 356 pages; 2020.

Julie Janson’s Benevolence tells the story of the early days of European settlement in Australia but with one important twist: it’s told through the eyes of a young Aboriginal girl.

Written as a rebuttal to Kate Grenville’s The Secret River*, a novel that dared to talk about frontier violence from a white perspective, Janson uses a First Nations lens to tell the other side of the story.

The author, who is a Burruberongal woman of the Darug Nation, says it is a work of fiction but is based on historical events in and around the Hawkesbury River in Western Sydney.

In her afterword, she says:

The characters are derived from Darug, Gundungurra and Wonnaruah Aboriginal people who defended their lands, culture and society. Muraging is based on my great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Thomas, who was a servant on colonial estates in the Hawkesbury area. The other characters in the novel are inspired by historical figures and my imagination, except the governors who are based on historical documents.

Raised by white settlers

Benevolence spans 26 years (1816 to 1846) in the life of Muraging (later renamed Mary), who finds herself caught between two cultures.

Raised and educated by white settlers at a boarding school set up for Aboriginal children, she desperately misses her family and for most of this novel, she swings between the two: working as a servant when she needs food and shelter, heading on country to be with her people when she needs to get back in touch with her culture and traditions.

But even when she is with her own kind she stands out, for she wears European, albeit servant, clothes, can play the violin (she totes one around with her) and speaks English. In white society, the colour of her skin marks her out as different and her pretty looks attract the unwanted attention of often violent men. No matter where she is, she is “othered” and her desire to fit in is only made harder by the children she bears (with white men) and must raise on her own.

Frontier wars

But this is not just a tale about one indigenous woman’s experience, it’s a larger tale about the frontier wars, which rage on in the background, and of the violence committed on First Nations people by white settlers determined to keep the land for themselves, declaring Australia terra nullius and treating the original inhabitants as nothing more than vermin to be shot and exterminated.

From the start, Mary is aware of the danger that white men pose to her race because she has heard the rumours circulate at  school:

Days go by and Mary hears other children’s stories whispered in the night. Many have seen, and still see, the bodies of their parents shot and hung on trees with corn cobs in their mouths. They still watch in horror as crows peck out living eyes and black beaks pick brains.

Later, as an adult, she knows about the Bells Falls Gorge massacre, north of Bathurst, in which women and children jumped to their deaths after white settlers opened fire on them — and she is terrified she could be caught up in something similar.

She’s also increasingly aware of the destruction white people are causing and the implications this poses for local tribes. When she’s on country, for instance, the women in her tribe struggle to gather enough food to eat because “the white hunters have massacred all the local kangaroos” and there is little game nearby. The new settlers are also wreaking havoc in other ways:

The men discuss the thousands of newcomers arriving in ships in Sydney Town and how they crash through the bush smashing the fragile undergrowth, cutting down the oldest, tallest and most sacred trees – even carved burial trees. Log-splitting men follow the axe men and the sound is deafening, night and day. Fiery pits burn all night with wasted bark. Her peoples’ footpaths have become bullock tracks with deep greasy mud churned by huge wagons full of logs. The tiny fruits and flowers are being crushed. Nothing is left of the forest’s ceremonial sites. Their stories cannot be told if the places and sites of the ancestors are gone. The waterholes are ruined by cattle and the goona-filled water cannot be drunk.

Throughout the story, we see how Mary’s Christian upbringing — supposedly designed to deliver her from sin — simply entraps her. It’s a feeling that never quite goes away, messes with her sense of identity and makes her reliant on white settlers who don’t always have her best interests at heart.

An important novel

Benevolence is an important book because it puts a human face to an Aboriginal perspective, a perspective that has previously been ignored or written out of history.

At times, I felt it lost momentum, perhaps because it is just so detailed, covering every aspect of Mary’s life, which includes time on the run in the bush, various jobs as a servant, a lusty romance with a white reverend and a short stint in jail. But on the whole, it’s a comprehensive account of all the many challenges and tragedies to which Mary must bear witness.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers and Sue’s at Whispering Gums.


* The Secret River is based on Grenville’s ancestor Soloman Wiseman, a Thames waterman who was transported to Australia for theft, and who later settled on the Hawkesbury River at the area now known as Wisemans Ferry. He is mentioned in Benevolence as follows:

Wiseman’s Ferry is a large raft where loads of flour are winched across the river by a metal wheel driven by a horse. The old ferryman and innkeeper is Solomon Wiseman. His inn is called The Sign of the Packet; he is an ex-convict and lighterman from the Thames in London. Along the riverbank, the convict road workers are dressed in torn, dirty shirts, their skins tanned from the sun and hunger etched on their faces.


This is my 7th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it in July 2020, began reading it and then got distracted by covid lockdown shenanigans and never returned to it. I also read it this year as part of my project to read more books by First Nations writers. You can see all the books reviewed as part of this project on my dedicated First Nations Writers page

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5 fast reviews: Anne Enright, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Yukio Mishima, Bruce Pascoe & Tara June Winch

Sometimes I can’t quite review books as fast as I can read them. I am now working from home (thanks to the coronavirus lockdown), which means there’s little separation from working and home life, and when I finally turn off the computer I’m too exhausted to do much other than flop in front of the TV to watch Netflix or ABC iView or some other streaming service. I really can’t summon up any extra energy to pen a book review.

In the interest of keeping you all informed about what I’ve been reading, here are five books I’ve read in recent months, which I know I will never get around to reviewing in full. This is a pretty eclectic list but a good demonstration of my reading tastes and interests.

As per usual, the books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Actress’  by Anne Enright
Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 264 pages; 2020.

I am an Anne Enright fan. I was so looking forward to this novel that I bought it on the day of release in Australia and spent a weekend reading it at home on my balcony.

It’s about an aged Irish actress, the fictional theatre legend Katherine O’Dell, as seen through the eyes of her daughter, Norah, but it’s less about acting (though that is a major theme) and more about the ties that bind mothers and daughters, and what it is like to live in the shadow of a famous parent. (The cover, by the way, is a nice reflection of the story: it’s Carrie Fisher as a child watching her mother Debbie Reynolds on the stage.)

But for all its beautiful language and its rich characterisation and the authentic insights into human relationships, I came away from this novel thinking, So what?  It’s full of dark truths and hidden secrets (but is nicely balanced with a touch of subtle comedy), and I loved the way it chartered Katherine’s career from Hollywood to London’s West End and then her slide into obscurity, but there was just something missing that meant I struggled to fully engage or care about the people depicted…

‘Daisy Jones and The Six’ by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Fiction – paperback; Arrow Books; 401 pages; 2020.

I bought this novel to read on a longish four-hour flight from Darwin to Perth last month (just days before the WA borders were closed) and I absolutely loved it.

It’s very much in the vein of a music “documentary”, structured around a series of interviews with members of a (fictional) band that was big in the 1970s. It mainly centres around Daisy Jones, an ingénue singer-songwriter, who joins The Six, and helps propel the group to worldwide fame.

It charts the group’s rise in popularity and recalls the legendary tours, the chart-topping songs and the volatile recording sessions, and provides startling insights into the personal lives of the main players, including their drug addictions and their relationships outside of the music industry. It’s very much a story about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, and the enormous pressures fame exerts on those whose creativity is the basis of their success.

Fans of Fleetwood Mac (whom the band is supposedly modelled on) will find a lot to love here. It’s hard not to see Daisy as Stevie Nicks and The Six’s narcissistic leader Billy Dunne as Lindsey Buckingham. This is a fun read but has a sad ending…

(For a similar sort of novel, I can also highly recommend Joseph O’Connor’s much-underrated and deliciously entertaining The Thrill of it All, which is the fictionalised memoir of a guitarist from a rock band that made it big in the 1980s.)

‘Star’ by Yukio Mishima
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 87 pages; 2019. 

Published as part of the Penguin Modern series of novellas and short stories, Star is a story about fame. First published in 1961 not long after the author himself acted in a film, it focuses on a movie star and eligible young bachelor called Rikio. A heartthrob growing more famous by the day, wherever he goes he is greeted by screaming fans. This feeds Rikio’s narcissism and his arrogance, and much of the story focuses on his quest to remain relevant so that the fame does not disappear.

But 24-year-old Rikio has a secret. He has a lover, Kayo, an unattractive older woman — “She looked at least forty but was barely even thirty. Her two front teeth were silver, and she wore her hair in a messy bun” — who is, in fact, his assistant. She does his hair and makeup, and because his good looks are so central to his success, she is his constant companion.

The novella examines the artifice of celebrity. It demonstrates how difficult it can be to live a life that is not your own and the stresses you must endure to be unfaithful to your true self. I wouldn’t say rush out and read it, but I found it kept me entertained over the course of a couple of lunch times.

‘Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe
Non-fiction – paperback; Magabala Books; 278 pages; 2014.

There won’t be many Australians who haven’t heard of this legendary non-fiction book which debunks the long-held belief that Australian Aboriginals were nomadic and did not build houses or practise agriculture.

Pascoe painstakingly excavates evidence from the papers and letters of the first white settlers and explorers to show that pre-colonial Aboriginals did, indeed, do those things — and more. He finds written evidence that they built dams, farmed wild plants for food, constructed settlements and fashioned landscapes to suit their ends. They even had their own system of government. And he explains why it suited colonialists to suppress that evidence, to maintain the myth that Aboriginals were simply hunter-gatherers, a myth that remains to this day.

Dark Emu is a truly eye-opening book. I loved Pascoe’s simple prose, his well thought out arguments and his plea for better understanding between black and white Australians so that we can move forward together. If the book has a single message it is this: white Australians have an amazing opportunity to learn from 60,000 years of sustainable custodianship of this land and all it contains — but they have to acknowledge it first.

‘Swallow the Air’ by Tara June Winch
Fiction – hardcover; University of Queensland Press; 216 pages; 2006.

First published in 2006 but reissued in 2018 (in a really lovely small-format hardcover), this is a gripping account of a young Aboriginal girl whose single mother dies, leaving her (and her older brother) in the care of an auntie. When Auntie’s fondness for drink and men who throw their fists around gets too much May strikes out on her own. 

Told in a series of self-contained short chapters and vignettes (a bit like short stories), the narrative charts May’s ups and downs, the heartbreak she contends with, the crappy jobs she works, and the people — good, bad and indifferent — that she meets along the way as she comes to term with her past and seeks out her own indigenous culture. The redemptive ending, when she returns to her childhood home as a proud Wiradjuri woman, makes this beautiful, heartfelt book such a powerful one. Written in lush language, it contains so many evocative descriptions of people, places and experiences that it’s the kind of book you want to savour rather than rush through.

Oh, and did I mention it’s won a million awards?

I read ‘Actress’ as part of Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month 2020, an annual initiative to read books from Ireland. You can find out more about that on Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

I read ‘Star’ as part of Dolce Bellezza’s #JapaneseLitChallenge13. You can find out more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March, here. This is also my 11th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it on Kindle last November for £1.99, not realising it was basically a short story.

I read ‘Swallow the Air’ as part of the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It is my 6th book for #AWW2020.

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‘Two Sisters: Ngarta and Jukuna’ by Ngarta Jinny Bent, Jukuna Mona Chuguna, Pat Lowe & Eirlys Richards

Non-fiction – paperback; Magabala Books; 127 pages; 2016. Translated from Walmajarri.

Today is Australia Day, an occasion I haven’t celebrated for 21 years because I’ve lived abroad, but now I’m back home I don’t much feel like picking up the baton, mainly because I think the day disrespects and is hurtful to the First Nations people of this country. I decided to make a point of reading some indigenous writing instead. And what a treat this book proved to be.

Two Sisters: Ngarta and Jukuna is a brilliantly evocative autobiography of two aboriginal sisters. It’s also a fascinating and eye-opening portrait of the desert people’s way of life in the 1950s and early 60s and how the coming of the vast cattle stations changed everything.

Originally published by Fremantle Press in 2004, it has since been reissued by Magabala Books and comprises several different parts. The sister’s memoirs are told separately — Ngarta’s is titled a Desert Tragedy, while Jukuna’s is My Life in the Desert — and there are short chapters, by Pat Lowe (who edited the stories) and Eirlys Richards (who translated them from the Walmajarri language), explaining how the book came into being and putting the sister’s lives into context. It includes a helpful glossary and pronunciation guide, and colour plates of the artwork the sisters produced as well as a selection of their photographs. Jukuna’s story is also published in the original Walmajarri language in which she wrote it.

The new cover on the 2019 edition

Written in plain prose, both the sister’s stories highlight a way of life that no longer exists thanks to the arrival of Europeans and their vast cattle stations in the 1950s.

Both Ngarta and Jukuna were born in the Great Sandy Desert (located in the north-west of Western Australia and spanning more than 110,000 square miles — check out this Wiki page for more info) and lived a largely nomadic lifestyle, wandering from waterhole to waterhole, accompanied by their kin.

Each sister was raised by a different woman — Ngarta was raised by her grandmother; Jukuna by her birth mother — so they have slightly different takes on things, but they both depict relatively simple lives focused on family and hunting/gathering. Everything they did was imbued with a deep sense of respect for their homelands.

Their existence was so remote and their lifestyle so ancient they had never set eyes on a white person before and knew nothing of the modern world.

It was a Cherrabun Station [writes Jukuna] that I  saw a kartiya [white person] for the first time. He was the station manager, Mr Scrivner. I thought, ‘So that’s what a kartiya looks like!’ I stared at his red skin, so different from black people’s skin. He was the boss and he gave us rations in return for our work.

It’s difficult to fathom that even basic things we take for granted — rainwater in a tank, for instance — alarmed and frightened them, for they had never seen such things before. In one scene, Ngarta and her family dip their hands in a barrel of tar they discover on a cattle station, thinking it is some delicious foodstuff, only to find it burnt their fingers, mouths and throats!

A life lived in terror

Ngarta’s story is particularly fascinating because she (and her family) were on the run from a pair of aboriginal brothers who killed indiscriminately.

She had seen them spear her mother and kill her grandmother and then her brother for no reason at all. She kept wondering who would be next. When she had the chance, she took her mother to one side. ‘I said to my mother:’ “You and me’ll have to go, run away in the night. They might kill us.” But my mother wouldn’t listen.’ Perhaps Ngarta’s mother was too frightened to run away in case the men followed them. She must have wondered where else she and her daughter could go, when their only remaining relatives were here in this last little band. Ngarta made up her mind to go on her own.

She flees into the desert taking just a firestick and a digging stick with her, careful to only step on spinifex grass so that she does not leave footprints behind in the sand. Using her wits and her hunting and gathering skills, she manages to survive in the sandhills by herself for a year before deciding to return to her family.

While she had been away the brothers had become firmly ensconced in her family group, and she was with them when they killed cattle belonging to a local station manager; the men were sent to prison for the crime.

The culture and customs of desert dwellers

As well as outlining their day-to-day lives, the book also throws light on indigenous culture and customs, such as marriage, family structure, celebrations and ceremonies, how they grieve, the ways in which family members communicated with one another when they were separated by distance, and the language they spoke.

I learned so much reading this slim volume, not just about the amazing resilience and survival skills of these women, but the ways in which they were prepared to share their experiences with the wider world. Both women went on to do amazing things with their lives to ensure their culture was preserved — Ngarta became an artist in middle age and Jukuna taught Walmajarri to school students.

Lisa of ANZLitLovers liked this one too — read her review here. Bill, who blogs at The Australian Legend, has also reviewed it.

Please note, you can order a copy of this book direct from Magabala Books, which is based in Broome, Western Australia, and is Australia’s leading indigenous publishing house.

This is my 2nd book for #AWW2020 and my 4th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I was given this copy by Lisa Hill, who kindly arranged for it to be hand-delivered by fellow WA-based blogger Bill last year. Thank you to both of them for getting this book in my hands — it was such a privilege to read it.

I also read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian Writers page