I made myself a goal for this year to be better about keeping track of which reviewers bring books to my attention/convince me to pick them up, so that I can give credit where it’s due in my reviews. Unfortunately, this book was put on my radar prior to that goal. So, I cannot properly thank whoever convinced me to put it on my TBR. In all actuality, I haven’t really seen many reviews for this novel, even considering the number of awards it’s won/been short and long listed for. And that’s too bad, because in both topic and written execution, it’s significant and expressive.
“There was an expanse behind her; their lives meant something, their lives were huge. Thousands of years, she thought to herself. Slipped through the fingers of careless people.”
August left her homeland (Murrumby River at Prosperous House, on Massacre Plains, in Australia) and family ten years ago. After her sister disappeared, she lost her connection to the land and the people and ran to the other side of the world. But when her grandfather dies, she returns for his burial. Grappling with grief and the bittersweet homecoming, August finds out that their home at Prosperous is about to be repossessed by a mining company. After hearing about a book her grandfather was writing, a book meant to remember and pass on the language and culture of his people, August decides to search for it in an attempt to reconnect with her ancestry and save her home.
I’m just going to start by reiterating the last line of my opening paragraph here: in both topic and written execution, it’s significant and expressive. This is a passionately lyrical, introspective exploration of a young girl coming to terms not only with her own life/losses, but also the way that the losses of her ancestors are carried forwards intergenerationally. Although this story is specific to the Australian continent, the general theme of cultural theft and dispossession and forced assimilation that colonizers forced on Indigenous populations is universal in both geography and experience. The historical aspects woven through, about the ways everything was stolen from the Indigenous tribes in Australia to start, juxtaposed with the current-day ways that that dispossession is still being enforced/supported, and the impossible red-tape standards for preservation (in a real sense, not in a performative “museum” way), is affecting and eye-opening and (again), applicable to many (all) colonized indigenous lands.
Yet, the true beauty in these pages shines not though that universal pain, but in the specific lives of the characters like August and her cousin Joey, who are finding their voices and exercising their rights to reclaim what is theirs, the power in knowing and owning your own history, so that there is an intergenerational pride within them, alongside that intergenerational trauma. It’s an individual glance at a reckoning that must happen on a worldwide scale. (Honestly that entire intergenerational theme, both the difficult and the uplifting, gave me vibes of The Deep and, though the writing and story-structure are very different, if you like one, I’d definitely recommend the other.)
The story itself was told in three perspectives. First, August’s (present-day) timeline and narration. Second, a historical letter from a religious leader who helped found Prosperous (a “good” colonizer/missionary) who realizes, much too late and only when his own life is affected/in danger, how wrong his outlook/goals/lifework was. And third, the dictionary that August’s grandfather, Albert, was writing. And personally, that was by far my favorite perspective. The letter was important for context, a rounding out of the history of the land and the horrific treatment of Australia’s Aboriginal peoples. And I loved August’s personal journey and reckonings, but the writing for her part had a cadence and, for lack of a better term to describe it, “way,” to it that both took me awhile to adjust to and for some reason, at least for me, kept me at arm’s length from her in some ways. That actually fits her character’s emotional state, and as I read further, and she opened up simultaneous to me getting more accustomed to the writing, that changed a little. But there was still a distance throughout, at least for me. But Albert’s sections…those sections blew me away. It was a mix of dictionary and oral history (yes, I know this was written, but it had a vibe of oral story-telling to it) and poetry that I just could not get enough of. Albert introduces the reader to his language, the meanings of individual words, through cultural stories/practices/myths, personal connection to the words within his life, and the moments that touched him deeply that he associates with each. Albert’s dictionary was just so perfectly reflective and instructive and elegiac and moving.
I was so impressed with this novel. There is such a rich exploration of such complex topics within the lingual framework of some of the most unique, stylistic writing I have ever read. It’s a slow-paced read, meant for connection and reflection and calling for recognition and bring to account from readers, but it is absolutely worth the effort.
Of course, you know when I talk so much about the writing in a novel, there’s going to be a lot of pull-quotes. Enjoy:
“…there was a lot to remembering the past, to having stories, to knowing your history, your childhood, but there is something to forgetting it too.”
“In my language it’s the things you give to, the movement, the space between things.”
“The family trees of people like us are just bushes now, aren’t they? […] Someone has been trimming them good.”
“Life and death have finality, limbo doesn’t; no one wants to hear about someone lost. Someone that just went and disappeared altogether.”
“Whenever I’ve cried in my life it’s always come when I start singing. I could never hold a tune but that isn’t the reason we try something, not perfection. Perfection is just someone’s little opinion at the end of the day, and there isn’t much that man makes that is perfect anyway.”
“There was a war here against the local people. In that war the biggest victim was the culture, you know? […] culture has no armies, does it?”
“I think I noticed that your pop and I could do good things together. That our love could bounce off the world and I was that age, I guess. I was open to him and I knew straight away that he loved me, that he wouldn’t put me down.”
“She thought about how every family has its own special language. Its own weird sense of humor that’s stuck in the past.”
“…our descendants must take the post. Claim that space where shame lived, where things were lost, where we were kept away from our culture.”
“August felt there, felt effortlessly at home, felt as if a vibration were being shared between the three generations of women. Felt as if she might laugh that way, on Prosperous, after everything, after death and theft and secrets and lies and the muddied water, and the diesel and the blood – after all that – she felt as if she was home. Belonged.”
“It’s all precious in the end! It’s like there are never enough details left. I wanted everything back. Fingerprints, photos, every story, nights that were longer. A right time to die? To be separated? There isn’t, August. It hurts all the time, it hurts to lose someone, doesn’t it?”
“She’d realized then the purpose of their history class where they’d been mentioned like important footnotes, just like the purpose of the museum, how it felt like a nod – polite and reverent and doused in guilty wonder – of a time that had now passed. Past or passed she thought as she followed the arrow to the archaeology collections.”
“August wanted to hand the papers back and to tell them everything, draw them close and whisper that their lives had turned out wrong, that she and her family were meant to be powerful. Not broken, tell them that something bad happened before any of them was born. Tell them that something was stolen from a place inland, from the five hundred acres where her people lived. She wanted to tell them that the world was all askew and she thought it was because of the artifacts, that she thought they should understand it was all so urgent now, that they knew truths now, to tell them that she wasn’t extinct, that they didn’t need the exhibition after all. All the hidden pieces were being put back together, she wanted to say.”
“People so scared of not having everything […] that our people are gunna have nothing.”
“To be isolated is to be unable to act. That’s what we were – isolated – from our family, from our language, from our cultural ways, and from our land.”
“When August was a little kid she couldn’t rely on the certainty of even a day. She thinks now that that’s why she needed to control the things around her, the things she ate, the things she said. She tried to keep herself and her life small and manageable. Much like a poem. The condensing of the wide, unknowable past that runs right up behind them. She doesn’t do that anymore. Her life isn’t a poem; she knows it’s a big, big story. Her people go all the way back to the riverbank, and further, after all – the river and what happened at the river was a time traveler, their story has no bounds in time. She and Joey learned it’s the grandkids that inherit everything their ancestors did before. They carried the past with them, though they never knew. All the years that she had been adrift and tethered at once amounted to something, though. She’d rediscovered her family an who she truly was because of who they truly were.”