This book is about the changes that occur in a nineteenth century settler community in Queensland, when a “white man” who had the “mangy, half-starved look of a black” stumbles in to their lives.
Immediately, Lachlan, the boy-child, becomes “incensed”. The notion of xenophobia and fear of the unknown is immediately launched into when Lachlan notes that the “idea of a language he did not know scared him.” Lachlan immediately asserts himself over the man by jerking the stick towards the man’s heart and in his Scottish accent says “Just stick yur mooth”.
As word spreads in the settler town, they all come to view this “specimen”. Here Malouf shows us their curiosity, their fear, simply with the lines “this specimen of – of what? What was he?”
Malouf winds his rolling, mysterious and psychological narrative along, and shows beautifully and tragically, the way the man has become a catalyst for change. Much of this change is scary whilst some of it is truly gorgeous.
As usual, Malouf’s characters are psychologically intricate and lucid. In the opening chapter, it is Lachlan’s character that captured my attention. I really believe that Malouf has a real insight in to the male condition, and seems to portray his male characters with depth, but without going to great pains to do it. We are immediately aware of Lachlan’s masculinity, his need to control, seek power and glory – all this in a twelve year old. Lachlan was “determined to keep hold of the bit of glory he had won.” It is this kind of language that Malouf uses to so vividly create his characters.
Malouf also recreates the isolation and the sense of the unknown which surrounds them. He writes “the country he had broken out of was all unkown to them. Even in full sunlight it was impenetrable dark.” He adds “It was disturbing, that: to have unknown country behind you as well as in front”.
It seems for Gemmy, that once he has told the various settlers about his life, his memories are stirred. It seems to trouble Gemmy that his life (or what the settlers have understood of it and made up of it) should be captured on paper. He is bemused and off-put that his life “should be reduced now to what a man could hold in his hand and slip in to a pocket”. But more importantly, it is Willet he is searching for, and he hopes that “if he could only identify where they were among the squiggles, he might find Willett with his bristling red hair, and the rats...”
A particularly touching description follows this:
“ All the events of his life, all that he had told and not told, and more, much more, now that it had begun to stir and move, which he was just beginning to recall, had been curled up in him like an old-man carpet snake. It was awake now. Lifting its blind head it was emerging coil on coil into the sun”.
Malouf’s use here of the wonderful carpet snake simile is really powerful. Again, it is this psychological nature of Malouf’s writing that I adore. Here, Gemmy is awaking the repressed memories of Willet and the final sentence about his past, about this snake inside of him that is lifting its head up, and “emerging” is an amazing way to portray somebody’s lost identity returning slowly. Of course, this mention of Willet makes the reader think “who the hell is Willet? What is this man’s story?” and keeps the reader in suspense, wanting to know more.
Chapter three opens with a disturbing description of Gemmy being washed ashore, and found by the black women. Malouf here mixes beauty with ugliness and the description really is quite disgusting but gorgeous at the same time. What I am trying to articulate here is the way Malouf uses his language in an incongruous way, effecting in the reader a sense of disorientation and an uncomfortable sense of mish-mash. In a way we are forced to marvel at what we might ordinarily feel repulsed by. For example Gemmy’s flesh is described as “...raw, covered with white flower-like ulcers where the salt had got in...” He is covered in tiny crabs which Malouf writes “heaved and glittered”. Further demonstrating the incongruity of language is when the women “lifted the loose husk” that covered Gemmy and found “silvered skin”. We are then assailed with the vision of “the white worm of his prick”. Malouf really does seem to be able to convey those experiences where there is beauty in the ugly, the strange. In this description, he almost creates an incandescence, a glow to Gemmy the “creature”.
There really is so much ground covered in this book - but the most touching theme for me is the length to which poor Gemmy will go to find Willett. That, even though he is maltreated and molested by Willet, even though it is a disgusting and gross life he leads with Willet, the sense of love and belonging he gets there drives him on. It is this eternal search and longing for a sense of belonging that most struck me in this book.
The notion of belonging and individuality is also seen in my favourite character in the entire book...Jock. I love this man – the changes that he undergoes through contact with Gemmy are truly amazing. Anyway, I might revisit my lovely Jock later, but for now here is a passage that I think really cuts to the core of what we all crave – Belonging, but also looks at the stage where that need for belonging, when the individual self emerges. Gemmy is Jock’s catalyst for this emergence of his individual self and the following paragraph, I think, really articulates this beautifully:
It was as if he had seen the world till now, not through his own eyes, out of some singular self, but through the eyes of a fellow who was always in company, even when he was alone; a sociable self, wrapped always in a communal warmth that protected it from dark matters and all the blinding light of things, but also from the knowledge that there was a place out there where the self might stand alone.”
Oh, there are so many wonderful parts to this book – I just don’t have the time to put them all down right now.
Just quickly: I had a little trouble after my first quick reading, coming to terms with the very bizarre life-plot of Gemmy Farrelly, so I will attempt here, for those who didn’t read it – to outline my new understanding of his life.
1) He lives as a rat-catcher with Willet, where he is maltreated and molested. He loves Willett and has a sense of belonging there. He accidentally burns Willet’s place down, so flees.
2) He is picked up by someone who places him on a ship.
3) On the ship is The Irish and Mosey – awful people who treat Gemmy like shit and eventually throw him overboard.
4) After flailing about in the sea, he is washed ashore and lives for 16 years with blacks in the North scrub country.
5) Then he makes his way to the Beattie’s settlement, unintentionally creating indelible changes to Lachlan, Janet, Jock and the entire settlement.
6) He leaves the Beattie’s after recovering the written version of his life.
7) He possibly gets massacred by white cattlemen. (Though it also seems that Lachlan, 50 years on, is clinging to this as Gemmy’s fate “tying up one of the loose ends of his own life” so we don’t really know what happened to him in the end.)