Heart of the Grass Tree by Molly Murn (2019, Vintage Australia) is a novel which tells several stories over multiple timelines. All of them are interlinked by place: Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia. The island today is known for its wildlife, pristine beaches, beautiful scenery, a thriving arts scene and tourism. In the time of the earliest story told by Molly Murn in the book, the1820’s, it was a place with a darker, bloodier purpose—sealing.
We learn about the white men, who gravitated to the island to hunt seals for the lucrative skin trade, and the Aboriginal women from the mainland and Tasmania who lived with them. The author wrote that she wanted to tell the story of the women in particular because their history is in large part, lost to time. Most, if not all of those indigenous women were taken against their will and lived as slaves. They were stolen for the obvious reasons—white women being in short supply in the colony at the time, especially in such remote locations—but also because of their skills in hunting and skinning the seals which gathered around the waters and beaches of the island. Murn’s narrative allows the reader to imagine the brutalities to which these women were subjected, but we also get glimpses of their strength and the skills they possessed.
Another plotline in the novel is set in the present-day and involves a family of two sisters, Pearl and Lucy, who with their mother Diana, their husbands and children, come together on the island to mourn the death of their grandmother, Nell. We learn of their personal struggles, and the role played by Kangaroo Island in their lives.
It was Nell who had shown Pearl the quiet private things of her childhood island. Not the ‘grand swathes’,as Diana mockingly called Nell’s constant imparting of local history, but the small gleaming things.p.133
And we learn of Nell’s own history. Nell was born and raised on the island, and her first love was Sol, a boy from the farm next to Nell’s family. Sol is Aboriginal. When Nell falls pregnant she is sent away to Adelaide to have the baby—and her son is taken away for adoption. Her parents insist on this not just because of Nell’s youth, but also because they cannot live with the shame of their daughter bearing a mixed race child. Such were the attitudes of the time. This loss haunts Nell for the rest of her life. Its effects are felt by the children she has later, her daughters who mourn her death in their different ways.
I love fiction with dual or multiple timelines. Novels like this allow me to look at a place, familiar in our own time, through a different lens. I can get a deeper sense of the way in which ‘history’ is never just in the past—it’s tendrils can be seen and felt in our own time, if we are open to that.
Molly Murn’s novel is beautifully written, imbued with a deep sense of place and poetry.
I’ve not yet been to Kangaroo Island. This novel makes me want to visit. And while I’m there, to watch out for the small gleaming things.
Have you been prompted to visit a place because of a novel you have read about it? Let me know in the comments.
In last week’s post I mentioned being at the Cobargo Folk Festival recently, and having the pleasure of meeting Gabrielle Stroud after reading her book ‘Teacher.’
At the same festival, I had another of those wonderful moments of serendipity. Also on the festival program were several performances of “The Good Girl Song” Project. A song cycle called “Voyage”, it was written by Helen Begley, based on research by Liz Rushen and eyewitness accounts of the voyage.It presents in musical and theatrical form the story of young single women who emigrated from England to Australia, in the 1830’s. The show was performed by Helen, Penny Larkins, Penelope Swales and Jamie Molloy.
I just loved this presentation. It was Australian history, brought to life. The hopes and dreams of poor women searching for a better life, who sailed halfway round the world to be met by several thousand men on the Sydney dock. The colony was starved of eligible young women, at that time in it’s history. So did the women receive a warm welcome? Hardly. They were greeted by jeers, catcalls and filthy remarks from the assembled men. Imagine the women’s distress and disappointment. And the resilience they needed, in order to lift their heads, endure the humiliation and jeers that their ship was a “floating brothel” and walk down the ship’s gangway, to somehow make a new life in this strange land.
The show brought me to tears. It evoked thoughts of my own ancestors, some of whom I am writing about in my current fiction project. Some arrived as convicts, others as free passengers, but all of them would have experienced the hardships of the voyage here, and the same trepidation as they stepped ashore.
To hear more about the project go here:https://vimeo.com/130713977
or visit their Facebook page:https://www.facebook.com/thegoodgirlstory/
This is the debut novel from Claire Coleman, a Noongar woman from southern Western Australia. The book was published in 2018 by Hachette Australia and it won the black&write! Fellowship in 2016, from the State Library of Queensland.
It’s a hard book to describe, being one of those books that bend or fuse genres. The first half reads as historical fiction, based on all-too-real stories of the invasion and colonisation of Australia by Europeans, the bloody frontier wars, the massacres, the church run Missions and the Stolen Generations. It’s hard going, difficult and uncomfortable reading, but important reading for all Australians.
Given that these awful events in our nation’s history have been told through story and in non-fiction works, in films and songs, it is astounding to me that so many non-indigenous Australians can still plead ignorance, or worse, disinterest, in these darker parts of our history. While many of us are now proud to acknowledge our connections to other challenging periods of the Australian story, for example, our convict heritage, it does seem strange to me that some remain unable or unwilling to acknowledge the reality of what happened to indigenous people in this country. Let alone to respect the resilience and tenacity that enabled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to survive.
Halfway through the book, we realise that what we are reading is, in fact, speculative fiction. It switches our viewpoint in a way that feels quite disconcerting, at least to begin with. It is cleverly done.
The writing is at times clunky, with some repetition and laboured sentences. But the overall effect of this book is to leave you thinking and wondering. What if? What would that be like? How would that feel?
Which is, I believe, one of the best things that good fiction can bring: an increase in empathy.
Have you read other fictional works that do this?
Let me know in the comments below.
For those who haven’t come across her work yet, Sulari Gentill is the Australian author of the Rowland Sinclair series. Beginning with the first title, A Few Right Thinking Men, published in 2011, the (to date) nine books relate the adventures of Rowland Sinclair, “an artist and a gentleman…with a talent for scandal”. (from the cover blurb)
Along with his friends Edna (a talented sculptress and Rowland’s model for his many nude portraits as well as a possible love interest), Clyde (Communist Party of Australia member) and Milton (wannabe poet) Rowland travels Australia and further afield, stumbling into crimes that need solving.
The books are all set in the 1930’s, the time of the Great Depression, battles between the Far Right (The New Guard and Antipodean Nazi sympathisers) and Communists; seances and spiritualism; stockmen, gangsters, and bitter politics. Gentill immerses the reader in the thinking, politics, places, fashions and fads of these turbulent times.
The settings of the novels are wonderful: from the leafy Sydney suburb of Woollhara to the grimy streets of Sydney’s slums; from the new national capital of Canberra to the heart of the ‘squattocracy’ at Yass; from the opulence of the Hydro Majestic Hotel at Medlow Bath ( my fellow Blue Mountains readers will know this one) to sailing on the Aquitania; Shanghai; London; even to Munich as Hitler rises to power.
Gentill has the knack of weaving compelling crime stories with spot- on historical detail and wry humour, all told through the eyes of her very likeable character and his chums.
I greatly enjoyed this series and can’t wait to hear the author talk about her newest title, All the Tea in China, published January 2019.
I might see some other Blue Mountains readers at the Author Talk on 9th March at 2pm. Let me know in the comments below if you are planning to come.
The ‘Monsarrat series’ comprises three books (at time of this post):
The Soldier’s Curse, The Unmourned, The Power Game
No surprise that I was drawn to this series – they are, to date, three novels of historical fiction, set in several different locations in convict era Australia. Another draw card was the fact that they were co-written. I’ve always been a little fascinated by how the co-authoring process works, and this is an intriguing father and daughter team: well loved Australian author Tom Keneally and his daughter Meg. If I had the chance, I’d love to sit down with the authors and find out more. Who writes which bits? Which of them comes up with the initial ideas? Do they meet physically to discuss, plan and plot their stories, or is it an online or Skype process?
The stories centre around Hugh Monsarrat, who we first meet at Port Macquarie penal colony in NSW, while he is serving out his sentence for fraud, in the early part of nineteenth century NSW. Hugh is an educated man whose intelligence and aspirations outstripped his means, tempting him to pass himself off as a lawyer in England. His deception is discovered and he is shipped off to NSW on a convict transport.
The books take the form of classic “whodunnits”, as for one reason or another, Hugh is tasked with solving murders that occur where he happens to be: Port Macquarie in book one, the Parramatta Female Factory in book two, and Maria Island (off Tasmania’s coast) in book three. There are plenty of opportunities for guesswork by the reader, with red herrings planted throughout, and various characters having their own reasons to commit a murder.
A truly delightful character who appears in each book is Mrs Mulroony, a forthright Irish woman who has already served her sentence and becomes Hugh’s offsider. Mrs Mulroony is a woman of many talents, including skillful tea making and shortbread baking, to which she adds a fierce intelligence and the ability to accurately read people and situations – usually much more astutely than Hugh himself.
The books have a droll humorous tone, with believable characters and intriguing story lines. What I also enjoyed is their examination of the social, economic and political forces at play in colonial times, and the way in which these impact on the various characters.
If you are looking for well written historical fiction set in early Australia, peopled by characters you can fall in love with, you won’t be disappointed in these stories.I read that the books have been optioned for a TV series and very much hope that will eventuate.