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.
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s out now, RRP $29.99.
Terra nullius has a specific resonance for Australians who know anything about their history. It’s the legal fiction under which Britain decided they could colonise the land that’s now Australia, because it was ‘nobody’s land’ – that is, no one that the British recognised owned it. Because the British didn’t recognise the traditional owners as ‘owning’ the land, for a whole bunch of reasons. So for Claire G Coleman to use that as the name and premise of her book is brilliant, and pointed, and tells you a lot about what the book is on about before you even open it.
Coleman, who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people, won the black&write! writing fellowship in 2016 with this manuscript. The main reason why I think that’s awesome – aside from the obvious one that it’s a great book – is a bit spoiler-y, and that’s a bit of a problem with discussing this book at all…
The blurb talks about Natives, the Colony, and Settlers. It says “This is not Australia as we know it. This is not the Australia of our history. This TERRA NULLIUS is something new, but all too familiar.” Along with the fact that this is a didactic book (in no way a criticism) that does its message-work with clear prose, understandable characters, compassion and a lot of toughness… I can’t really say much more about the book without revealing what makes it something other than a book about Australian history. There’s runaways and enforced schooling and hiding from Settlers and Settlers complaining about the environment… and… other things.
I want to throw this book at all white Australians. And I would be fascinated to hear what non-Australians think, especially people living in other colonised lands. I don’t know enough about how that’s spoken of elsewhere to know whether the resonance would work in a non-Australian context… but I think there’s enough commonality for it not to be a completely foreign experience.
And now, for those of you who don’t mind spoilers: