Book Review: Taboo by Kim Scott

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]

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History Herstory Our Story: Parramatta Female Factory – 200 Years

The foundation stone for the Parramatta Female Factory was laid on 9 July 1818 by Governor Lachlan Macquarie. The bicentennial of this event was marked by a community gathering in which stories of women, children and men who were linked to the history of this place were acknowledged.

The day’s events included a dedication ceremony, historical re-enactments, speeches and the unveiling of a commemorative wall. There was also a Welcome to Country, acknowledging the Barramattagal ancestral ground.

The Parramatta Female Factory was commissioned by Governor Macquarie in response to the growing challenge of creating an environment where convict women could be housed, gainfully employed, be selected as possible servants or wives, and punished if required.

North Tower of Ward 1 featuring clock that was once located on Female Factory main barrack

North Tower of Ward 1 featuring clock that was once located on Female Factory main barrack

The role of women in the colonial society was contentious on various fronts, and not least of all because the female population was significantly lower than that of men. An anonymous letter had been sent to Earl Bathurst accusing Macquarie of condoning prostitution by not providing accommodation for unmarried women. Macquarie had requested approval to build accommodation previously but had been denied. Reverend Samuel Marsden had plans already drawn up; these plans were passed on to Colonial Architect Francis Greenway by Macquarie. The plans were to build a factory and barracks to lodge 300 women on four acres enclosed by a nine-foot stone wall.

The factory model was used for a further twelve factories around the state and the country as the colony expanded. It was to be built alongside the Parramatta River, in part to provide access to the river for spinning flax and bleaching linen. Government House was on the other side. The Factory “stood on the edge of its large barren grounds as if straining across the river to the settlement.” (Macquarie’s World, Marjorie Barnard).

Female Factory Store and Dispensary

Female Factory Store and Dispensary

Factories were designed with multiple purposes in mind including British bridewells, workhouse and prison. Various work was carried out by women on the site, including producing linen, wool picking and spinning, stone breaking and working within the factory itself. It is estimated that about 5,000 women passed through the Parramatta factory. Women were employed as servants by private settlers and returned for various reasons, such as reassignment, the birth of children or court-ordered punishments.

The site had a history of overcrowding, mismanagement and poor conditions, and there were various riots at the site as a result. A class system was put in place to separate women eligible for assignment, women approaching the end of their imprisonment, and women who had committed crimes in the colony or had broken the strict factory rules.

View from riverbank towards industrial sections

View from riverbank towards industrial sections

In Women Transported: Life in Australia’s Convict Female Factories, a handbook to an exhibition compiled by various researchers and contributors, it is noted that it was estimated that at least 25,000 convict women were transported to Australia. Of these, between nine and ten thousand are estimated to have passed through one of the colonial convict female factories. There were two in Parramatta (the original one had been located above the gaol) and two in Moreton Bay; others were located at Newcastle, Port Macquarie, Hobart Town, Cascades, Launceston, Ross and George Town. Many of the factories were developed as adjuncts to gaols.

The description below of a typical journey to the Parramatta Female Factory is from A History of Australia (Volume 1) by Manning Clark.

These women were taken by boat from Sydney Cove to Parramatta. This journey lasted from morning to evening in fair weather, but with an adverse wind darkness came down before the end of the journey, when great irregularities took place and the women frequently arrived at Parramatta in a state of intoxication and plundered of their property, to begin their servitude the next day in destitution and on a hangover. By an odd irony this was generally their first experience of life in a colony which had been created for their reformation as well as their punishment.

The Factory, located in Fleet Street in North Parramatta, formed part of a complex of government buildings in the Parramatta area which played an important part in the development of the colony of New South Wales. Some of the original factory buildings remain; others were demolished when the site was later repurposed as an asylum. The high walls that are a familiar sight in locations including Gladesville Hospital (a custom built asylum) are present here too. The factory is now part of the Cumberland Hospital complex, under Western Sydney Health, and NSW Institute of Psychiatry. The Parramatta Female Factory Precinct, which incorporates the Female Factory and Roman Catholic Orphan School (later Parramatta Lunatic Asylum and Parramatta Girls Home) has been in continuous use as an institutional site since 1818.

Hospital administration building, built c 1910 over the original gated entrance to the Female Factory

Hospital administration building built c 1910 over the original gated entrance to the Female Factory

A walk around the grounds shows a mix of heritage sandstone buildings and other buildings from different decades. On one perimeter there are the high walls of the defunct Parramatta Gaol. A short bridge over the Parramatta River provides access to the modern Cumberland Hospital.

There were a variety of stall and historic displays set up in the airing yard, a grassed space protected on three sides by sandstone buildings. Beyond a fence, the ground slopes down to the river and there was much bird activity and a colony of grey-headed flying foxes. They were mainly suspended from branches, tightly bound and resting, but the group of noisy people below may have been disturbing them as there were regular squawks and squabbles as positions were jockeyed for and the odd bat took to the sky before circling back to nudge someone else out of position.

Grey-headed flying fox

Grey-headed flying fox

Other colourful displays during the day included several people dressed in historical costume, including a man playing the role of Samuel Marsden (with a flogging whip, striding about and asking who the owners of children were), a schoolmistress and a matron. They provided a lively touch to what was, for the most part, a day of sharing family stories connected to a difficult time and place in our history.

Historic Actors at Commemoration

Historic Actors at Commemoration

As part of the bicentennial ceremony, following a number of interesting and personal speeches commemorating some of the many women and children who passed through the factory site, a plaque was unveiled. This contains the first names of some of the women who entered the factory gates as part of their journey through the colony.

Parramatta Female Factory Memorial

Parramatta Female Factory Memorial

There is an excellent site created by the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct Association Incorporated (Parragirls) which provides an overview of the site over its many decades of institutional life. There are common – and devastating – echoes across generations of women with stories linked to the area.