As a child of a 1960s education, I’ve often thought that the stories we read in our School Reader have a particular endurance in our memories. Perhaps it was because it seemed that the whole curriculum seemed to centre around the School Reader, or because as a fast reader, I was condemned to reading and re-reading the story until the slower readers caught up. When I read the italicized preface to Gail Jones’ Our Shadows, where a young girl is remembering a story of a trapped Italian miner named Modesto Varischetti waiting to be rescued, something snagged at me. It was only at the end of the book that Jones brings this preface back into focus. It was a story in the ‘Fifth Book’ of the Victorian School Readers. There had been a mining accident; the water rose too quickly in the mine; he was trapped on a ledge; then divers came for him, with those huge circular diving helmets. And for any of us who read and remembered that story with its blurry black-and-white sketches, it all sprang into life again with the rescue of the boys in the Tham Luang Cave Rescue in 2018.
This story is part of the clever bookending that Jones employs in Our Shadows. The past and the present jostle against each other, just as they do in the threaded narrative of the book. There are multiple strands. One is Paddy Hannan, famed as the discoverer of the gold that made Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie famous as ‘Wild West’ gold towns during the 1890s. Fleeing the Irish Famine that has winnowed out his family, the discovery of gold and his notoriety is just one part of his long life as he escapes to Melbourne where he drifts around St Ambrose’s church in Brunswick and the domed, green lamp-lit State Library.
The other, more substantial strand is the Kelly family, who lived in Kalgoorlie. In the present day, there are two sisters, Nell and Frances. Their mother Mary died after Frances was born, and their devastated maternal grandparents, Fred and Else, took over the care of the very young girls. Their father, Jack, left and the girls grew up completely in the care of their grandparents. Now Fred has died, and Else is in a nursing home. The two sisters, while not estranged, are awkward and tentative around each other. Nell suffered with mental illness as a teenager, while Frances has recently been widowed when her husband died with mesothelioma from a childhood spent in an asbestos mining town. Frances, the younger sister, is perhaps more grounded than her older sister, and when they agree to look for their father, it is Frances who travels back to the family home, now occupied by their embittered aunt Enid.
At first I thought that this was going to be a multi-generational family history story and I felt that Gail Jones was punching below her weight to adopt such a clichéd narrative structure. I should have trusted her more, because the writing is much more complex than that. One of the shadows that falls over the sisters is their innocent acquiescence in the erasure of their mother’s memory by their grief-stricken grandparents, and the dominance of the maternal side of the family when their father disappears. So the narrative skips back and forth between the present day, and their grandparents’ own story, and the sisters’ childhoods. The interweaving of Paddy Hannan’s own story complicates the narrative even further.
Jones writes landscape beautifully, and I think that her Western Australian sensibility shows through here. Her writing, in this as in her other books, is very carefully wrought, although at times over-wrought. Frances deciding to go for a run for its ‘ravishing repetition’, and feeling the ‘delectable’ pull of her muscles when doing hamstring stretches feels like the writing of a much less experienced, polished writer. I have read several of Gail Jones’ books, although I only reviewed Five Bells (see my review here) and it seems that I have had similar reservations about her other books as well.
As the winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for The Death of Noah Glass (which I have not read), Gail Jones is often regarded as a ‘literary’ and ‘hard’ writer. I do not find her this way, but this book is probably more accessible than her other books because of its apparently familiar family-history structure. It is much more complex than that, picking up the themes of her other books – estrangement, guilt, white response to indigenous dispossession, strained relationships – explored within family bonds. Her control of the different strands and time shifts is masterful, and it is a ‘meaty’ book with multiple themes and reflections.
My rating: 8.5
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
I have included this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.