Saturday, 5 July 2008

"Sorry" by Gail Jones a novel I read recently

This shows the front cover of the most recent novel that I have read. In itself, it’s somewhat of an event, as I think the last one previous to that, which I read, was “The Lovely Bones” which must have been about two years ago now. I seem to recall that my lovely friend Linda Haslam, gave me that and another book which I " relation to my own) have moved over from England, because of her father's employment at a local university. Part of what I found particularly of interest was the way that she and her chum Billy ( a deaf mute) terminology of that era, related to the "black fellas" (as they referred to themselves i.e., the indigenous Australians).
The so called 'grown ups' just perceived these people as labor for their sheep farms or whatever and then proceeded to exploit them whenever it suited them.
If I thought that my own mother was 'odd' then Perdita's mum was in another category altogether. Going around the place quoting from Shalespeare when it probably would have been more appropriate to say it from the heart or something along those lines.

Their whole house was made up of columns and stacks of books, this being the only thing that they had had shipped over from the UK when they moved to Oz. Perdita loved books and it provided another realm where she could 'virtually' find many of those things that she longed for.
The family employed a home help in the form of an aboriginal girl who was only a few years older than P., and they became very close.

Here are a couple of "proper reviews" which are more succinct than my efforts.

firstly an incredibly short one by Rob Cawston;

"Novelist and academic Gail Jones' latest book, simply entitled "Sorry", is a poetic exploration of childhood, language and retelling, and a critique of the politics of apology in modern-day Australia."

then a fuller and very informative review by Maya Jaggi, from the Guardian Newspaper

Saturday May 26, 2007
The Guardian

Sorry by Gail Jones

Sorry by Gail Jones, published by Harvill Secker.

Gail Jones's fourth novel invokes Australia's "stolen generation" - the many thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children wrested from their families for decades until the 1960s in the name of forcible assimilation. This historical injustice was the subject of a national inquiry in 1997, and the following year an annual National Sorry Day (sometimes called a Day of Healing for All Australians) was instituted - albeit without the blessing of the prime minister, John Howard.

Though the novel is informed by this recent history, Jones' approach to it is oblique. Set in Western Australia in the 1930s and 40s, Sorry is narrated by Perdita Keene, the daughter of English immigrants, looking back to her early childhood before and during the second world war. Her father, Nicholas, carrying shrapnel in his back from the previous war, was an embittered anthropologist stationed on a scrub land cattle station to do field work in aid of "governance of the natives", while her mother, Stella, sought ever more crazed refuge in Shakespeare.

Perdita's preferred family are Billy, a deaf-mute boy with "upstanding ginger hair and stippled greenish skin", and Mary, a literate Aboriginal ("half-caste") teenager drafted in from a convent to care for her during Stella's bouts at a lunatic asylum. When Nicholas is stabbed to death, and Mary confesses and is taken away, Perdita develops a hole in her memory and a stutter whose eventual cure lies in remembering the true circumstances of her father's killing.

While Mary's traumatic history is gradually revealed, the themes of separation and trauma, the haunting of memory and forgetting, language and speechlessness, are explored at one remove, through the parallel history of Perdita. Her narrative shifts from first to third person as she trawls her past, recovering her fluency with the help of the Russian Dr Oblov, and wondering "why it was she actually forgot. And why she must now remember her forgetting."

Her emotionally distant family, sure of its own superiority, is implicitly contrasted with the warmth of the Aboriginal communities from which children are stolen. It is from her Aboriginal wet nurse that Perdita learns "what it is like to lie against a breast, to sense skin as a gift, to feel the throb of a low pulse at the base of the neck, to listen, in intimate and sweet propinquity, to air entering and leaving a resting body". Her stuttering, when words would "roll in my head, like mist, like water, then emerge blurted and plosive, like something unstoppered", is partly about the loss of her wet nurse's language.

The injustice of Mary's imprisonment suggests - perhaps too explicitly - the metaphorical freight that the story is intended to bear. Visiting Mary, Perdita "carried the burden of such vast wrongdoing ... But although it was offered, there was no atonement. There was no reparation ... She should have said 'sorry'." Her guilt contrasts with the complacency of Perdita's mother, who withholds the testimony that would free Mary on the grounds that "What's done cannot be undone."

Jones's writing can be fluid and memorable, though the influence of Toni Morrison is pervasive from the opening page ("This is a story that can only be told in a whisper"). The persistent quotation of chunks of Shakespeare, alongside allusions to Heart of Darkness and Rebecca, proves an irritating device.

More engaging are the grounded descriptions, of Billy with his flapping hands "beating at his confusion", or the locals' scorn for the "pommy" Nicholas, a "fraud and a bloody no-hoper ... with his mad-crazy missus and his gone-feral kiddie". There are welcome, though sparse, depictions of small-town Broome, with its corrugated-iron shacks lining red gravel roads, its Japanese and Malay pearl divers and Aboriginal cattle ranchers. Just as Perdita's story is punctuated by turning points in the war, so her memory loss is counterpointed by gaps in official history, such as the Japanese bombardment of Dutch refugee ships in Broome in 1942 - another atrocity that people elected to forget.

In the acknowledgments, Jones recognizes that "Aboriginal Australians are the traditional custodians of the land about which I write", adding: "This text is written in the hope that further native title grants will be offered in the spirit of reconciliation." Though the sentiment may be laudable, it highlights a palpable design and self-consciousness that mar some of the writing. Jones - whose novels Sixty Lights (2004) and Dreams of Speaking (2006) were long listed for the Booker and Orange prizes respectively - teaches at the University of Western Australia, and the influence of theory is occasionally obtrusive. Yet when characters and events are left to speak for themselves the story proves powerful and poignant.


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