This novel by Western Australian Noongar author Kim Scott was published in 2017 and won a swag of awards including the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Award and the Indigenous Writer’s Prize, and shortlisted for many others including the 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award.
It is a novel about reconciliation between black and white Australia, specifically between a group of Noongar people who come together to try to lay to rest the ghosts of those who died in a corner of south western WA at the hands of white settlers in the nineteenth century. The property where the massacre happened is near the fictional town of Kokanarup, but the historical events are based on atrocities that actually took place.
In the novel, Dan Horton is an elderly widower who runs the farm on which the massacres occurred. His ancestors were complicit in the murders and he is keen to offer a hand of friendship to the descendants of those who died. He gets involved in planning for a Peace Park in town and invites the Noongar people to visit his property, as a well meaning act of reconciliation between his family and the families of those who were wronged.
Dan learns that Tilly, a high school student, will be joining the visitors and his hearts lifts. Tilly was fostered by Dan and his wife Janet when she was a baby, when her Noongar father was incarcerated and her non indigenous mother unable to cope for a time. Dan has fond memories of that time and longs to see Tilly again. But the visit does not go as he’d planned and hoped for.
The visitors gather at a local caravan park for a ‘culture camp’, during which several elders teach some of the Noongar language, culture and ceremony. The camp also serves as an informal ‘rehab’ for those needing time and space to have a break from alcohol or drug addiction. We follow Tilly as she observes people going about the various activities. She feels like an outsider, having only fairly recently met her father (before he died and was still in prison) and her Noongar extended family, who nevertheless welcome her with a loving embrace. The reader is given hints, small glimpses via flashbacks or partial memories, of Tilly’s own trauma at the hands of a depraved and cruel white man, as she tries to reconcile her own past and the connections between her black and white heritages.
The novel has moments of humour and characters that are recognisable though never caricatures. There are some cringe-worthy moments, including the well meaning but completely uninformed (and non-indigenous) Aboriginal support person at Tilly’s school, for example.
The core of the novel is how the language and culture of the Noongar people, hold the disparate group together. Kim Scott explores how language can be a strength that people can draw on in difficult times, to make sense of their experiences and histories, and to forge a way forward into the future.
It’s language brings things properly alive.
This novel does not shirk from the difficult parts of Aboriginal and white shared histories. It also does not shy away from the betrayals and cruelties that people can inflict on each other. It does offer hope, that with goodwill we can move to a better future.
Here’s a short YouTube video of Kim Scott reading from the opening of Taboo. It includes these beautiful sentences:
…we are hardly alone in having been clumsy, and having stumbled and struggled to properly breathe and speak and find our place again. But we were never hungry for human flesh, or revenge of any kind. Our people gave up on that payback stuff a long time ago.