I knew nothing for sure about this book, going in.
Actually, that’s not quite true. I knew it was by Claire G Coleman, so having read Terra Nullius I had a reasonable assumption that it would involve something very clever and probably heart-wrenching as a commentary on Indigenous Australians.
(If you haven’t read Terra Nullius yet, and you’re Australian, you really really really should.)
I also assumed that it would be a really awesome story, because it was her.
The other main assumption I made was from the title. I’m not the world’s greatest poetry reader, but I did study war poetry in Year 12 (our teacher gave us the choice of what themes to look at: we chose war and death. We were 16, what did you expect?). So I can recognise a Wilfred Owen allusion when it’s waved in my face.
Putting those two things together and I could hazard a guess at the general ideas Coleman would be broaching. And if you’ve read Terra Nullius you can guess what sort of clever things Coleman is going to do with the ideas of war, and Indigenous soldiers. If not… look, both of these are the sort of books that really reward the reader having faith in the author, and going in with as few spoilers as possible. It is incredibly worthwhile. So go away, read it (them), then come back, because there are spoilers below.
Basically, Claire Coleman has written another brilliant book for today’s Australia and compels non-Indigenous Australians to think about the past and present realities for our Indigenous sisters and brothers. Also, it’s bloody brilliant story that’s going to work as a story whether you know the history behind it all or not.
Firstly, I got to about page 70 and discovered that Shane is female, and had to go back and read every other page that mentioned Shane to realise there were zero pronouns referring to Shane before that point. VERY CLEVER, COLEMAN. And this of course builds on a chilling and appalling first chapter that really does read like it’s straight out of the Somme… until a space vehicle of some sort lands to pick up the survivors. I think I liked that we got the SFnal nature of the book in earlier than in Terra Nullius, possibly because the same long-game wouldn’t work a second time? Or because there were too many things that relied on the future/space war aspect, that there was no time for teasing.
Secondly, I knew this whole story was going to be a bit of gut-punch; I knew that the treatment of Indigenous soldiers was pretty awful after both WW1 and WW2. But when Shane and Romeo are trying to get back to Earth, after fighting the war, and it’s taking a long time to get the paperwork sorted… well. I only recently connected the idea of soldier settlements with the dispossession of traditional owners, I think because I associate the latter issue with the 19th century not the 20th, so I think I audibly groaned when I realised what was happening. Coleman, you’re a clever and clear-eyed and determined author telling it like it was and is. Also: Maralinga.
There’s an interesting subtle-not-subtle thing going on in both of Coleman’s books. She’s using Indigenous history to tell compelling modern stories, but she’s also telling those Indigenous stories; there’s an extent to which I think she’s not interested in subtlety because then you might miss the point (looking at you, New Manus Station) and then what’s the point in having written the story? but she’s subtle in other ways, with her diverse characters and exploration of themes.
I’ve been trying to think of where Coleman might go next if she continues on this same sort of story-telling bent. The Stolen Generations? Land rights, Wave Hill and Mabo? More location-specific stories? Who knows. I’ll read it anyway.