So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
She had not understood, till she came to a place where it was lacking, the extent to which her sense of the world had to do with the presence of those who had been there before, leaving signs of their passing and spaces still warm with breatha threshold worn with the coming and going of feet, hedges between fields that went back a thousand years, and the names even further; most of all, the names on headstones, which were THEIR names, under which lay the bones that had made their bones and given them breath. A truly lonely person is the central character, Gemmy Fairley, who belongs to nobody, nowhere. That is Gemmys life forever precarious atop a boundary fence, almost unable to communicate, and at the mercy of all. The story itself, takes place in the harsh, hot, humid climate, but the interest for me is the interior lives of the characters and how they manage to bump along together in spite of their differences. The characters are colourful and varied - the story is very real. One thing that stood out for me was that although we hear little directly of the Aboriginal people, Gemmys knowledge of plants is invaluable to Mr. Frazer, the minister, who keeps a detailed field notebook and has dreams of using native plants and animals for the settlers.
Were dropped into mid-19th century colonial Australia, in a far-north outpost where European immigrants struggle to make a life out of the dust and rural isolation of their new land. Reverse culture shock was the most disorientating feeling Ive ever experienced: that deeply lonely sense of being a two headed alien in your home country, and yet, still an outsider in your new one Malouf nailed it. Both from Gemmys perspective, and from the Scottish immigrants who both long for home and struggle to put on a strong front and brave the elements.
Sometime in the mid-19th century a young British boy named Gemmy Fairway, with some degree of mental retardation, was being used as a rat catcher by a cruel man named Willett. Later, he came aboard a British ship and was exploited for years as a cabin boy. The novel starts on the day Gemmy--all dirty, emaciated, practically naked and looking more like a wild animal than a man--was found by three young children: Janet, her sister Meg and their adoptive brother/cousin Lachlan, a boy who was a little older than them. Nine years later, when Lachlan was already a young man and working, he came to know of Gemmy's fate. Lachlan himself had lost a beloved grandson, Willie, who fought during world war 1 and this loss he constantly remembers day after day. Lachlan leaves the convent where he paid Janet a visit. Janet thinks of her present concerns then, later, reminisces about the past, remembering those she had loved now all gone. The first bright line of moonlight has appeared out on the mudflats, marking the ever moving, ever approaching, ever receding shore. It does not make a house any less vivid out there because she can no longer see its light; or the children any less close because they no longer come to visit; or Willie because she has never known him except for what she has felt in Lachlan, and through him, in herself, the wedge of apple in his mouth; or her mother, long gone, standing out onn the hillslope in the dark, the dark of her body solid through the flimsy stuff, the moonlight, of her shift; or her father slumped at the breakfast table, the loose skin of her mother's hand, like an old glove, on the leathery back of his neck; or in darkness now, on the other side of the house, the single mind of the hive, closed on itself, on its secret which her own mind approaches and draws back from, the moment of illumination when she will again be filled with it; and Mrs Hutchence who has led her to this; and always, in a stilled moment that has lasted for years, Gemmy as she saw him, once and for all, up there on the stripped and shiny rail, never to fall, and Flash slicing the air with his yelps in clear dog-language, and his arms flung out, never to lift him clear; overbalancing now, drawn by the power, all unconscious in them, of their gaze, their need to draw him into their lives--love, again love--overbalanced but not yet falling.
I thought this was a wonderful book - a poetic meditation on the power of language, fear, acceptance of difference and differing ways of looking at the world. A 13 year old boy, put overboard because the crew fears that his illness is contagious, is taken in by Aborigines and learns their language and their way of being in the world. And in fact a good deal of what they were after he could not have told, even if he had wanted to, for the simple reason that there were no words for it in their tongue; yet when, as sometimes happened, he fell back on the native word, the only one that could express it, their eyes went hard, as if the mere existence of a language they did not know was a provocation, a way of making them helpless.
Gemmy was taken in by the McIvor family, but does not feel truly part of either culture--European or aborigine. Some of the settlers fear the black aborigines, and do not trust Gemmy. The Scottish Mrs McIvor thought, "It was the fearful loneliness of the place that most affected her--the absence of ghosts....She had not understood, till she came to a place where it was lacking, the extent to which her sense of the world had to do with the presence of those who had been there before, leaving signs of their passing and spaces still warm with breath--a threshold worn with the coming and going of feet, hedges between fields that went back a thousand years, and the names even further..." Neither the aborigines nor the colonials understood the others' culture. Gemmy was white, but his experiences gave him the skills to live in the bush and to communicate with the aboriginal tribe.
Using this technique, the author skillfully develops complex relationships between his characters, as they act out their ambitions, intentions, and fears. Within the boundaries of their homestead and through intuition and feelings, Gemmy develops relationships with each family member. Through Lachan and Janets conversation, the author attempts to resolve the readers curiosity and explain whatever became of Gemmy and some of the lesser characters. It seemed to this reader, a cheap technique to end an otherwise gripping story.
In the interim I have become interested in sociology and social constructivism- the way people's identities are both their own choice AND constituted and limited by their relationships and context in place/time. The book looks at this glorious mess of identity in a complexly detailed mosaic of class, race, gender, age, family ties, use of (and relationship to) the land and dispossession. Desire in the book is dark and complex, and relationships are with the land and nature as well as with humans (but this is not romanticised or at least not too much) If you want a feel good, straight forward story with a simple plot and a happy ending (as I used to) then don't even pick up this one.
Even more the assertion that living among the Aborigines resulted in the physical alteration of Gemmy so that he becomes unrecognizable as a white person? I realized then that the book could not be taken that way, that the character of Gemmy was more of a symbol of the potential of what could be in common between the Aborigines and British settlers and what was unbridgeable. Mr. Frazer representing the potential for the British to attempt to adjust to become part of the Australia land and perhaps coexist with those who were already living there.
From Gemmy, Lachlan, Janet, Ellen, George Abbott, Mr Frazer and Jock we learn that it is possible to move forward - however changed we may be from what came before - and continue to live, even though return is impossible.