The Heaven I Swallowed, by Rachel Hennessy, is a great prelude to Indigenous Literature Week next week at ANZ LitLovers. I was completely riveted by this novel.
The Heaven I Swallowed stems from historical truth, the personal, and the political. The granddaughter of a woman given up for adoption because of her Aboriginal heritage, Hennessy was stung to write this novel because of former Prime Minister John Howard’s statement that Aboriginal children were taken away from their families for their own good. But the book is a subtle indictment of the policies and practice behind the Stolen Generations, not a bitter attack. And singularly, for a novel involving this chapter in our nation’s history, it presents not so much the perspective of the stolen child, but rather the perspective of the very strange woman who adopts her. The Heaven I Swallowed is such an accomplished novel that it was runner-up for the Vogel Prize in 2008.
The rather odd title is an allusion to the Roman Catholic communion service. Grace is a devout Catholic, but her devotion to the church seems to be a warped substitute for normal human affection. Brought up herself in an institution where she herself was physically and emotionally abused, in the aftermath of World War II, Grace lives alone as a widow. She attends meetings of the Widow’s Group but their malicious gossip and craft projects do nothing to assuage her loneliness and so she decides to take in an Aboriginal child. While she dearly longs to be thought of as a ‘good woman’ doing a worthy deed, she also craves affection, though she has no idea about how to give or receive it.
Grace believes that Aboriginal children are born with a stain on their characters, but that she can redeem Mary by giving her the benefits of living in white society. It isn’t easy for Grace partly because of her own ingrained racism, and partly because her decision isn’t accepted by her fellow-parishioners. She has, however, a powerful motivation. She is in need of redemption herself.
An unexpected plot twist in this novel reveals the extent to which this woman is living a lie, but along with this masterful plotting, Hennessy depicts the small town racism, the casual way in which the local women deride young Mary in front of her as if she weren’t there, and the petty meanness which characterises the way that Grace uses Mary as a domestic, deprives her of an education and skimps on her clothing. But it’s not a simplistic portrait: she also shows the moments when Grace stands up for Mary – there’s a poignant moment when one of the widows is making snide remarks about the child, and Grace says that she trusts her. I almost wept as I read this while on the plane coming back from Queensland because Grace is not a woman who has ever learned to trust anybody.
Unfortunately Grace can’t trust anyone quite enough, and Mary’s desperate search for information about the mother she is sure is looking for her brings matters to a head. Part II brings a resolution Grace wasn’t expecting but leaves the reader haunted by the character of Mary and the thousands of other children that she represents.
Join me, please, in reading works by indigenous authors next week during NAIDOC Week celebrations of indigenous achievements and culture, July 8-15. Click the ILW logo above to sign up and to access reading lists.
Author: Rachel Hennessy
Title: The Heaven I Swallowed
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press