Nell was born 18 months after her sister Frances. Unfortunately, Mary, their mother died during Nell’s birth. Their father, Jack, not coping, or not wanting to cope, leaves never to return and through his actions turns his daughters into orphans. The sisters fall under the care of their grandparents Fred and Else. Their aunt, Enid also lived with them in Kalgoorlie, 1977.
Although separated in age by over a year the sisters are often mistaken for twins, inseparable for their early years. However, just before entering their teens the sisters start to differ in appearance, growing slowly apart in their interests.
In the fifth chapter, Jones will suddenly, and without any warning jump the narrative into the future, changing the time and the geography. The reader knows it is the present by the references to today’s zeitgeist. Climate change, refugees, hellish conflagrations that leave nothing but ash in their wake.
Chapter six will shift back in time again and change to, Fred, the grandfather’s perspective, and later at chapter eleven, another shift to Nell’s perspective.
There is one more character, not a member of the family, who the narrative follows, and this is Paddy Hannan the gold prospector from 1893, who appears in the opening chapter.
So effectively the story is about three generations of family and how they and the world around them has changed with time.
In the present the sisters are now barely in contact with each other and both have their problems. Frances has lost her husband two years ago and is finding it hard to move on, still finding his presence almost clinging to her. Nell has mental health issues, anxiety and depression, and is far from thriving. Existing rather than living.
With both suffering they decide that tracking down their father may help.
That is about it for the narrative with the strength of the novel coming from the wonderful characters and Jones’ lush prose. Beautifully descriptive, lyrical and poetical, a joy to read.
A highlight for me is when Frances returns to Kalgoorlie, the town that brings the narrative’s branches together, she befriends an aboriginal woman, Val. Val takes her around teaching her the language, and the history of the original owners of the land. This opens the readers eyes to the damage on so many fronts that the gold rush, the mining, and inevitably the colonization, inflicted on the aboriginals and their land.
As with “The Death of Noah Glass” I adore Jones’ writing and must leave you with a few passages,
“It was still terrifying, a swim in the ocean. She’d never quite overcome the feeling that there was something thuggish about waves. Nell dived her best dive and came up as water broke above her. She was momentarily out of breath, dragged into a fierce undertow, rolled like a ball in turbulence and tossed and sunk, bubble-lines at her eyes like rosaries ascending in a scrim, then into surf, then into spindrift, and all of it bleary, all of it rushed, before her own bubble head emerged brimming-oh!-with panicky gasps.”
“There were the diggings, a world unmade, like a desecration, but there were also the convicts and the blacks, and the empty spaces further out, rumoured full of death. These topics too he could not fashion with words for those left in County Clare. The world was bigger here and more godless with the green gone from it and dry, and the bush a fearful wilderness beyond what was still a half made place.”
A great novel, beautifully written. 4 stars.
Gail Jones is the author of two short-story collections, a critical monograph, and the novels BLACK MIRROR, SIXTY LIGHTS, DREAMS OF SPEAKING, SORRY and FIVE BELLS.
Three times shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, her prizes include the WA Premier's Award for Fiction, the Nita B. Kibble Award, the Steele Rudd Award, the Age Book of the Year Award, the Adelaide Festival Award for Fiction and the ASAL Gold Medal. She has also been shortlisted for international awards, including the IMPAC and the Prix Femina.
Her fiction has been translated into nine languages. Gail has recently taken up a Professorship at UWS.