I will confess that I spent the first half of this book being angry at it (a rather futile endeavour, I must admit). The ‘hook’ of the book is its pyramidal structure where each separate story builds chronologically onto the next one, with a link between each story until it reaches an apex, then goes back down again, revisiting each story in descending order. It was used to brilliant effect by David Mitchell in his Cloud Atlas in 2004, a book which I absolutely loved. Mitchell was able to draw you to his characters emotionally, so that you felt reluctant to let them go when the next story commenced. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case in Catherine McKinnon’s book, which followed a similar structure, even to the point of having a dystopian story as the apex story. As a shorter and ‘thinner’ book (both in page numbers and in imaginative complexity), there was not time to develop the same engagement, and the choice of characters felt a little didactic rather than creative. So, for much of the book, I felt cross that it was such a poor, derivative shadow of an idea.
Where McKinnon’s book differs from Mitchell’s is that the stories are all set in the same geographical location: around Lake Illawarra (south of Sydney Cove and Botany Bay, near Wollongong). As the title and subtitle (‘the land is a book, waiting to be read’) suggest, the land is the unifying feature, although birds and a stone axe are also literary talismans that appear in each story. The stories in her triangle are:
- Will Martin – 1796 based the real-life William Martin who accompanied Matthew Flinders on his second Tom Thumb journey of exploration
- Hawker 1822- based on a real-life court case where a convict, Seth Hawker, was tried and acquitted of murdering an Aboriginal woman on a farm at Exmouth in the Illawarra district
- Lola 1900 – when farming came to the Illawarra
- Bel 1998 – when the suburbs have reached the lake, and indigenous art has become commercialized. Children, not quite understanding what they are witnessing, are exploring their neighbourhood and are befriended by a young indigenous woman in an abuse relationship
- Nada 2033-2717. Nada is the ‘hinge’ story, where an apocalyptic climate event has wiped out the Illawarra area. A survivor, Nada, has had her DNA and brain data stored, and 684 years later technology has given her a new body and is trying to piece together her memories.
and then, back the other way again……
I said that I begrudged the book for the first half. For me, the breakthrough came with the Nada story. Clambering back down through the stories that had been set up in the first half of the book, at first I found it a little difficult to remember the scenario that had been set up and had to flip back to the matching story in the first half. However, if the apex Nada story was about the reconstruction of an unfiltered memory, in each of the ‘climb down’ stories there was an obfuscation of the truth, an agreement to twist the narrative just slightly. As well as this reflection on history, there was the underlying thread of the land, against which her characters battled, and then tamed, only to be defeated by it again. The land is beautifully described, in its untamed and strange menace, and its persistence amongst suburbia. Indigenous people are always there, right from the voyage of the Tom Thumb II, and the telling of their stories becomes caught up in false narratives, false testimonies and false merchandise.
And so, I ended the book with an appreciation of its themes, rather than the characters as such. I still regret the similarity with Cloud Atlas, and there was an earnestness about the selection of her characters as representations of a historical phase, rather than complete in themselves. Nonetheless its intent in telling the story of the Illawarra, a land like a book, with its omissions and evasions, was well realized.
My rating: 7/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
I have included this book on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.