David Malouf.
New York: Vintage International, 1994.
ISBN # 0-670=74051-9.
200 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
August 2005

Three children are playing near their hut in a remote outback Australian village in the 1850s when Gemmy Fairley stumbles out of the bush. Nothing will ever quite be the same in the village again.

Gemmy at first appears to be a white person who in some inexplicable way was living with the hidden blacks. Fear strikes into the heart of these Scottish immigrants eking out a living in the outback, themselves uneducated and with only raw fear and bitter hatred of the unknown blacks to go by.

But Gemmy is not quite what they pictured. Little by little his story comes out – he is in fact a European, born in England. After his first 11 years of living a life in brutality and desperate poverty he runs away and ends up on working on ships until he is the sole survivor of a shipwreck when he is just 13. He is taken in by the Australian native blacks and lives with them for the next 16 years.

It is then, in his 29th year, in about the year 1850, that he stumbles out of the swamp and into the village. To complicate matters even more, Gemmy is quite simple, most likely being mildly retarded, but he does regain a small bit of English.

Gemmy is taken in my the family of McIvor family, having been “discovered by the two young McIvor daughters and their cousin Lachlan Beattie. The rest of the village is frightened that somehow Gemmy is a forward agent of the blacks and will bring disaster upon the village. He actual does bring disaster upon the village, but not by conspiring with the blacks, but unleashing the demons only lightly suppressed in the hearts of the villagers.

David Malouf presents a marvelous microcosm of Euro-Australian attitudes, fear, misunderstandings and intolerance of the Australian aborigines, and the disasters such attitudes and actions get them into.

The novel is so cleverly written, at one time being this simple story of a tiny, remote and forgettable village, yet on the other hand, the same story that was eventually writ large in much of the early days of the European settlement of Australia. It could just as well have been set in a hundred other places of colonial settlement. A beautiful and compelling book. At the same time a sad portrait of human close-mindedness and blindness to what is around them.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett