Sometimes books cross your path at the right time. Taboo had been recommended by a fellow avid reader as one of several books that I should keep an eye out for. When I started to read Taboo, it coincided with a week with some travel and much time in the air and waiting for flights or on trains was spent with Gerry, Tilly and Dan in the south west of Western Australia.
Recently ABC aired a series called Mystery Road, which is about two young men including a local Aboriginal who go missing from a large cattle station. The background setting is a small town with a mix of locals and backpackers frequenting the local pub. One of the characters is a young woman who was sexually abused when aged thirteen. There are echoes of streets with houses and yards that need attention, a community in disarray and the sexual abuse of children in Taboo as well, but there is also a strong sense of trying to understand and reconcile what has happened in the past.
Whilst there are various viewpoints and characters in the book, the main players are Dan, Tilly and Gerry. Dan is the link with the white colonial past. Recently widowed, he lives on the family farm which is run down and eking an existence in lean times. He is on his own with two small dogs for company. His brother, Malcolm, keeps an eye on him and their sibling bond includes a religious connection. There are early hints of a disconnect between Dan and his son, Doug. There is also a sense of foreshadowing: Dan had thought he’d spotted Doug somewhere, in the city perhaps, and was surprised at his appearance, his shaved head, and even at a glance could see that there was something amiss both with Dan and the woman he was with.
Tilly is at the heart of the story. In her early teens, her mother tells her that her father is Aboriginal, in jail, and wants to see her. They travel together to see him but Tilly is left to go into the jail alone and is guided by an Aunty who she meets there. Aunty Cheryl is to have a significant impact on her life. Tilly meets her father and continues to go to see him with Cheryl’s help and encouragement. Cheryl offers a different way of life, something more exotic and glamorous than what her mother can provide.
Gerry is the link between Dan and Tilly. Gerald is one of the twins – his twin brother is called Gerard. We meet Gerry just as he leaves jail, having been inside for a few months due to a misdemeanour of Gerard’s. It isn’t always clear in some parts of the book, especially from Tilly’s perspective, which twin is the good twin and which is the other as they both are called Gerry and are nearly identical in appearance and dress. Even tattoos are similar. During his stints in jail, Gerry has connected with Tilly’s father, Jim Coolman. Jim has lived a life in and out of jail, marred by drugs and drink and violence. But he has found a sense of connection and belonging by bringing the local Noongar language back into use. Jim has been running sessions in the jail and he speaks to Tilly of the importance of language in their visits.
The early introduction to Tilly is when she travels to a remote location to be picked up by Gerry (both Gerrys are there) and shuttled out to the ironically named Hopetown. There is to be an unveiling at a Peace Park, a plaque to acknowledge the town as the site of a massacre of Aborigines in the late 1800s. The actual site of the massacre is on Dan’s family farm.
There are elements of the supernatural in Taboo, with the people of the past never really that far away. Dan sees his wife in a doorway and is comforted by her presence. Throughout the landscape around Hopetown and Dan’s farm, in particular, there are quickening shadows at various times, including when Noongar people are walking around the property to visit old watering holes and the like. Tilly feels their presence too, especially when danger circles around her.
There are symbols and echoes of images. Early on, Dan reaches for a smooth stone on a windowsill which has been warmed by the sun. Towards the end of the novel, there are stones in Gerald’s pockets as he makes a pilgrimage of sorts across the pathways of his ancestors. When he stops to drink water, he sometimes exchanges one stone for another, then resumes his journey with them heavy in his pockets. There is a circularity to the narrative, starting with an out of control truck with unidentified occupants which becomes clear at the end of the novel. There is also the repetitive cycle of abuse by the powerful over those without power, across the generations. And a sense of the visiting mob being unwelcome in their own country, being met a couple of times with resistance and it is made clear that they should move along, that they have no right to be there.
But the book also brims with moments of humour and sharp observation. It is difficult not to wince at the naive enthusiasm and obliviousness of the newly appointed Aboriginal Support Officer at Tilly’s school who seems determined to create a token performance of dancing, art and didgeridoo.
‘Lots of people lost their culture down this way. We can fix that up. I’ll get some workshops, some classes or something happening. We’ll have excursions – we had one this morning, to the Aboriginal Community College.’ She named the suburb. ‘But it was terrible, those poor kids.’
‘How do you mean?’ asked Tilly.
‘None of them could play didj. Some of us, some of our kids, will have to go and teach them.’
‘Didj doesn’t come from down here.’
‘Oh, Tilly, but it’s so Aboriginal. Didgeridoo means Aborigine to everyone, surely!’
‘Well, I don’t know.’
Then there is the warmth and kinship of the busload of Noongar people, collected by Wally the bus driver, for the gathering and unveiling of the plaque at the Peace Park. One of my favourite minor characters was Beryl, one of those bossy women who help ensure people are fed and things happen, but with an edge that cuts through any insincerity. There is the cheeky elder, Wilfred, who makes bird puppets and recognises the importance of Tilly as one of the next generation, ‘tough and precious’.
It was the kind of book which stays with you, and which challenges assumptions and creates characters that you wonder about, long after the final page is read.
There is an excellent review of this book by Lisa Hill here.
[Photo: The Company of Trees by Ro Murray and Mandy Burgess spotted at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Katoomba]