Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Kim Scott, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Benang: From the Heart’ by Kim Scott


Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 502 pages; 1999.

Kim Scott‘s Benang: From the Heart is a story about Australia’s history of white subjugation of indigenous people. I had every good intention to read it for Anz LitLovers’ Indigenous Literature Week in early July. But when I started it I soon realised this was not a book to rush through. Indeed, I found it so upsetting in places I had to put it away for a bit, so that I could chew things over until I could summon the courage to pick it up again.

The first white man born

This deeply poignant and haunting story is narrated by Harvey, who describes himself as “the first-born-successfully-white-man-in-the-family-line”. From the age of seven he goes to live with his grandfather, who runs a boarding house mainly inhabited by alcoholic men. It is here that he is “raised to carry on one heritage, and ignore another” but as a teenager he begins to “reconsider who I am”.

In that search for self, Harvey comes to slowly understand his place in the family line — “the product of a long and considered process” to create a white man from a long line of people with aboriginal blood. This process has been overseen by his grandfather as part of a bold — and disturbing — scientific experiment in which he has been trying to “breed out” the aboriginal blood in successive generations in order to achieve “biological and social absorption”, to “dilute the strain” and to “uplift a despised race”.

His efforts mirror those of the settlements and missions in the early part of the 20th century in which Australia operated a crude system of apartheid designed to separate whites from blacks.

A blending of fact and fiction

The narrative is littered with real-life archival documents, many of them from the Chief Protector of Aborigines, A.O. Neville, who presided over a misguided — and cruel — policy of cultural assimilation, culminating in the removal of aboriginal children from their families to be raised as “white”. This factual content — which stands on its own and is not editorialised or commented upon — serves to make the fictional storyline more compelling and heart rending.

Scott, who is of aboriginal ancestory himself, refrains from casting judgement, but it would be the coldest of readers who did not understand the deep pain, sadness — and sheer immorality — of the story presented here.

According to an article by Susan Midalia, the author wanted Benang to be “educative in both historical and emotional terms — to inform us about the shameful history of the white treatment of Aboriginal people and
also, and centrally, to ‘speak from the heart’.” On those levels, he wholly succeeds.

Memorable storytelling

He also succeeds in crafting a compelling and memorable tale. The prose is  succinct and journalistic when it needs to be, at other times it is lyrical and poetic — at all times there is never a word out of place.

Occasionally, the narrative, which loops around in non-chronological order, borders on repetitive, but I suspect this is a deliberate attempt on Scott’s behalf to show how history repeats and the lessons of the past are not learned. There are also forays into what could be best described as “magic realism” — Harvey has the ability to hover or fly — but perhaps this is merely a metaphor for “aboriginal dreaming”?

It was a white bird with bright red at its beak. […] Flying low at the edge of the rock, its wing beats regular and powerful, it arrowed straight to where the younger bird was hovering, and then arced up to join it.

I looked to my children, and  — oh, this was sudden, not at all a gradual or patient uplift — I was the one poised, balanced, hovering on shifting currents and — looking down upon my family approaching from across the vast distances my vision could cover — I was the one to show them where and who we are. […]

I told Uncle Jack and the others of what had happened, and as I was speaking I found myself suddenly aware of how they listened. How they looked at me so closely, so attentive as I spoke. “Those birds. That was the spirit in the land talking to you. Birds, animals, anything can do it. That is what aboriginal people see.”

 An emotional read

I came away from this book feeling a mixture of joy and sorrow, anger and regret. It challenged me on many levels and I’m so grateful for having snapped the book up when I found it in a second-hand store last year.

Kim Scott‘s Benang was joint winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1999, an honour it shared with Thea Astley’s The Drylands.

For another view on this book, please see Lisa Hill’s thoughts.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Gail Jones, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Sorry’ by Gail Jones


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 218 pages; 2008.

Gail Jones‘ fourth novel, Sorry,has been shortlisted for this year’s Orange Prize as well as the Miles Franklin Award. Even before it was nominated for these prestigious literary prizes, I was looking forward to reading it. I gave Sixty Lights a glowing five-star review way back in 2006, so I expected high things from Jones’ new one and promptly ordered a copy from Amazon as soon as it was available in paperback.

But Sorry was disappointing. I wanted to love it. I wanted to find it so brilliantly readable I would find it impossible to put down. Instead, it was the opposite: I’d put it down and then find it almost impossible to pick up. This bugged me, because I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason for my unwillingness to finish the book. And then it occurred to me: I simply did not like any of the characters, a cast of kooky, unlovable and deeply confused people that, quite frankly, annoyed the hell out of me.

Is this a shallow reason for not liking a book? Probably.

That said, Sorry deals with some big themes, not the least of which is Australia’s shameful past treatment of Aboriginals in which children were taken from their families and raised with whites, what we now know as the “stolen generations“. Jones’ book is, indeed, timely, given that the country’s newly elected Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, recently apologised for a (now defunct) Government Policy that ruined so many lives and caused so much heartache and pain.

The story, which is set in the remote outback of Western Australia during the Second World War, deals with this issue in a rather oblique way. Indeed, many readers, particularly those who know nothing of this dark history, may not even pick up on it — although Jones provides a helpful, if slightly cloying, explanation of it in her acknowledgment at the end of the book.

The novel opens with the central character Perdita telling the story of her childhood in the Australian wilderness. Her parents, Nicholas and Stella, are English immigrants. Both are relatively complicated characters with a love of literature — their shack in the outback is filled to the brim with books, all imported from the Mother country — but their relationship is a loveless one. Indeed, Nicholas secretly engages in sexual relations with aboriginal women, while his wife slips into a dark depression (she is hospitalised on more than one occasion) and becomes increasingly obsessed by Shakespeare’s work.

Perdita, often left to her own devices, makes friends with Mary, an aboriginal teenager from an orphanage, who comes to live with them as the “hired help”. Their relationship becomes an especially close one, almost as if they are sisters.

It would remain wholly separate, Perdita’s time with Mary. There was something implacable, sure, about what they shared. Mary was by turns girlish and adult, but she looked after Perdita, daily attending her, offering companionship, knowledge and caring advice. She taught her poker (how to shuffle, to deal, how finally, to cheat), desert songs (learned from her mother from whom she’d been taken), and the lives of the saints (the strange details of which she had read about in the orphanage).

But this tender relationship — and one of the strengths of the book, it has to be said — comes to an abrupt end when Nicholas is brutally murdered one dark night.

It’s no plot spoiler to say that Perdita’s life is changed from then on, but I felt that the death came too early in the story (less than half-way through), because the book loses momentum after this dramatic event. I struggled to complete it, because although the murderer is not immediately obvious I’d already guessed who it was (the product of reading too many crime thrillers, perhaps?) and so I found the remaining 120-plus pages a bit of a drag — although the ending is a powerful, heart-wrenching one.

To suggest that Sorry is a little bit of a bore, a little dull, may be harsh, especially given that I simply cannot fault Jones beautiful, poetic prose, her pitch-perfect descriptions of the Australian bush and the sheer isolation of the country, far removed from the horrific events of the war in Europe. But the story lacks a certain something, although I can’t quite put my finger on it aside from its decided lack of lovable characters. Perhaps it’s narrative drive? Perhaps it’s a properly structured story arc?  Whatever the case, my overall opinion is that Sorry is a worthy book but not a brilliant one.