And so a new university year begins, and along with it, a list of books I have to read. On the plus side, the course I’m doing this year is all about contemporary Australian writing, so there’s some pretty good stuff on the list. And this is the first book on a list of books that I am really looking forward to. Granted, I’ve already read some of them, but I am being introduced to major Australian writers – like David Malouf.
As three young children are playing on their property in outback Queensland one day, their life is turned upside down by the appearance of a man who comes out of the bush. He appears to be white, but acts like an Aboriginal. After much discussion, the town places the man in the care of this family, whose lives will be turned upside down as the thoughts and opinions of everyone else in the town are slowly revealed, and things begin to get out of hand.
What a fantastic concept Malouf has taken hold of in this novel. That a young white boy could be brought up by an Aboriginal tribe, then attempt to be reintegrated into ‘civil’ society is brilliant. So often we get novels about what it means to ‘be’ Aboriginal, or what it means to ‘be’ a certain ethnicity. And the really smart thing Malouf has done in Remembering Babylon is that Gemmy himself doesn’t get very much screen time. Told from varying points of view, Gemmy himself gets only two chapters in the novel. Which is enough, because for Gemmy, the way he has been brought up is not unusual – it just is. For him, there’s no quest for identity, no question of who or what he is, because he is all he has ever known. On the other hand, the other chapters deal with how the people in the white settlement deal with their own views of what Gemmy is, and what he represents. Perhaps most touching is the relationship Gemmy and Jock, the father of the family share. Malouf has written it perfectly, with Gemmy as the overenthusiastic young child you can’t get rid of, and Jock the exasperated father. It’s beautifully done, and when all hell breaks loose, it works a treat.
I think the other thing that Maloouf does very well is to createa town where no one belongs. As the beackgrounds of each of the major players is slowly revealed, everything begins to make sense. Each and every one of these people resents living in Australia (well, pre-Federation Australia), and I don’t think any of them really want to be there. Some of them thought they were going to South Africa, others Canada, but none were ready for the harsh reality of the Australian sun. And this really plays into their reactions to Gemmy and the events that occur around him – their prejudices towards the Aboriginals, and to each other, are all revealed, and everyone is unhappy. Oddly enough, I loved the priest, Mr Frazer, who writes this beautiful passage near the end of the affair, where he is promoting the idea of a truly Australian way of farming – and everyone, including the Premier of Queensland, shoots him down. Again and again, these European people cling to their European sensibilities in the hope that it will save them.
Much like in this review, the ending of the novel does peter out a little out, and we’re never totally sure how the events of the one year or so that Gemmy lived in town actually affect everyone. What does show, though, is the affect it has on the children who found him in the first place – they are never able to forget him and what he brought to their town. And for them, it was pretty good. Now, I need to go and find more Malouf…