Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 15, 2014

The White Woman, by Liam Davison

The White WomanI was impressed by Liam Davison’s Soundings, but The White Woman is an extraordinary book.  I was lost in the world it created from the moment I started reading it.

The White Woman is not an historical novel, but it evokes the period of early European settlement to tell the story of the mysterious White Woman said to have been held captive by the Kurnai People of Gippsland in the 1840s.  The existence of this woman has never been proven, but the stories had remarkable longevity as can be seen from this extract at Trove.  Indeed if one potters about on the web for a while, one can find a number of scholarly works which deconstruct this legend using any number of isms.  They mostly focus on the gendered and racial sub-text: the public horror over the purity of civilised womanhood being sullied by savages, and the way that successive rescue expeditions provided a convenient justification for surveying and in due course acquiring more indigenous land.  These scholarly works ooze disapproval.

In Liam Davison’s capable hands, this apocryphal story becomes a fine short novel, one which interrogates these isms without being heavy-handed.  The novel takes the reader back into the mindset of the time, while also offering some kind of redemption through the narrator’s latter-day reflections.  We did this, the narrator says, and we were foolish and wrong.  It is the novel that seems more true to me…

The White Woman is a disturbing book, but – especially if you know the Gippsland Lakes and you’ve been there on a day when the lake is absolutely still – the prose is exquisite too.

For all our eagerness to be there, our confident expectation of what we’d find, none of us was prepared for what we saw when the river eventually opened into Lake Wellington.  The banks of the river fell away from us and we were faced with a stretch of water so vast it might have been the sea.  Its surface was absolutely still and, in the distance, its shore broke up in fog so a series of small islands seemed to drift on top of the water.  Nothing was as we’d expected.  Hundreds of swans pocked the water on either side of us.  Even with the light diffused through the soft haze, it still hurt our eyes to look too long across the water.  It seemed we’d come to a place not filled with light but made of light itself.  We clung to the shore for fear of vanishing into it.  (p. 41)

(You can Google Lake Wellington images and see how lovely it is, but none of the photos capture the light the way that Davison’s prose does.  It’s a place that makes you long to be a landscape painter.)

Imagine, if you will, a time when European settlement in Victoria was fragmentary.  There are still plenty of places in Gippsland where stepping off the beaten track can lead to peril and the idea of being lost and alone in remote, densely vegetated areas can cause justifiable terror.  In the 1840s when countless ships were lost off the perilous Victorian coastline, the loss of the Britannia which was wrecked on the Ninety Mile Beach in 1841 gave rise to the rumour that a female survivor had been taken captive by the Kurnai People.  Fear of the unknown and public outrage led to rescue expeditions, one of which is the basis for the novel.

Davison frames his story as a narrative told by one of the expedition survivors forty years after the event.  An un-named man seeks him out to find out the truth about his father, who was involved in events all those years ago.  The discursive, bitter, cynical, and anti-romantic account of events insists on self-doubt:

It’s odd how memory serves you.  Or how it fails.  Before you arrived here tonight, knocking surreptitiously at my door for answers to your half-formed questions, I could barely recall your father’s face.   Oh yes, I could conjure up the vague outline of a man if I put my mind to it (large, heavy-jowled, a solid jaw) but of course there was never any need.  He belonged to his own past, you see, as much as mine.  Nowadays, no doubt, you’d make a photographic print to hold it fast, the image of him as he was then, as if you had to fight against the past to keep him from slipping into where he belongs.  Yes, I’m right aren’t I? Memory’s not enough.  Tell me you haven’t sat in front of the magic box yourself and winced at the phosphorescent flash.

Yet now, with you sitting here before me, the outline sharpens; it takes on your features, your voice, your manner of holding the hot tea to your lips. Your father is back before me. All the years before have gone and I find, yes, I do remember.  I remember what he was like.  I talk with confidence about the things we did.  The events fall easily into place, day follows day, night follows harrowing night.  I open my mouth and it all comes tumbling out as if it happened yesterday: the search for her, the first signs of your father’s presence, the journey up the river… Almost without thinking, it finds its undeniable shape.

But I worry.  If it was somebody else who knocked, somebody else who walked impertinently into my shabby little room to claim association with my past, would I have just as readily recalled a different face?  Would things have moulded themselves just as comfortably to accommodate a different set of features, different questions, different expectations?  Would I have found myself recounting a different story about a different past? And if no one had knocked…? (p. 73)

From time to time, the narrator interrupts his ambivalent account of the expedition to acknowledge his listener, forcing the realisation that his father was an evil man.  The search for the woman was motivated by romantic notions of rescue, but the gruesome reality that they uncovered instead was that pioneer settlers on the ungoverned frontier in Gippsland were massacring the indigenous people.  What’s more, the ideals that motivated the narrator were not shared by other members of the expedition: they knew that it was better not to find a ‘sullied’ woman because it was the search itself which furthered their grandiose ambitions.  The position of De Villiers, who leads the expedition, is secure for just as long as they don’t find her.

It made him what he was, you see.  And once we’d found her, or failed, the focus would shift to her.  Or to whatever it was he knew would be revealed about ourselves. (p. 75)

Rival expeditions muddied the waters further:

Good and evil; black and white.  It’s tempting, isn’t it, to reduce it all to that – moral purpose, the clear delineation …. characters … as if people really worked that way.  They didn’t want us there, you see.  The story grew with every telling until Tyers, half wanting to believe perhaps, had set off in pursuit.  And before long, we had Walsh as well, tramping through the bush towards us with five of his police, following his own story to its natural conclusion.

You had to wonder what they thought we’d find, I mean, to follow us so closely.  They didn’t want us snooping.  Didn’t want us to find her – not when they had failed. (p. 97)

Davison peppers the narrator’s account with images of this woman’s plight.  We see her bound, beaten, delivering a child on a bush track.  Hauntingly, we see her dragged away, looking behind her at potential rescuers beyond her reach.  All of it is rumour, emanating from both black and white who – for their own reasons – claim to have seen her.   The story had resonance because it symbolised a clash of civilisations, at a time when only the European civilisation was acknowledged, and ironically it was thought to be vulnerable when it was actually the indigenous civilisation that was in peril:

The story was unresolved as long as we were out there, and even De Villiers could still convince himself it would end right, with all our actions justified.  He could still believe, in spite of what he knew, that we were under threat, that all we had to do was turn our backs and decency and virtue would be snatched away from us.  It’s not hard to imagine, is it?  Even now, there’re people who will argue that’s how it was (or is) … that we planted civilisation here against all odds. You see them polishing their pedigrees, trying to salvage something from their families’ pasts.

Yes, the past! It says something about us, don’t you think, that we’re so preoccupied with it?  Isn’t that what you’re here for?  Patting yourself on the back for who you are?  Yes, I know your type – all ears for what you want to hear, all shock and indignation for the truth. Well listen up, we’re not done yet! (p. 75)

The White Woman is uncomfortable reading because the thought of any woman being held captive is shocking yet our contemporary sensibilities resist the idea that it was more shocking because (if she existed) she was held captive in a culture so different to her own.  Patrick White explored this idea in A Fringe Of Leaves and Fiona Kidman did the same in The Captive WifeThat puts Liam Davison in distinguished company indeed.

Liam Davison and his wife Frankie were killed when their plane, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17, was shot down over disputed territory in Ukraine, and all lives were lost.  This review is the third in my personal tribute to an author, who, to my regret, I have discovered only because of the tragic circumstances of his death.   I find it very sad that The Betrayal, the next of his novels that I shall read, is his last.  He was a remarkable writer who deserved to be more widely known.

Author: Liam Davison
Title: The White Woman
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press) 1995
ISBN: 9780702226809
Source: Personal Library, purchased from AbeBooks

Availability

Out of print.  Scour the second-hand shops or try your library.  This book is well worth hunting down.

BTW On the day I looked, Fishpond had two second-hand copies of Liam Davison’s award-winning but out-of-print Soundings.  So if you were tempted by my review, be quick!


Responses

  1. […] Davison’s The white woman. (Davison was tragically killed in the MH-17 disaster, and Lisa reviewed The white woman, as well as his other novels, as a tribute to him.) Behrendt says that Davison tells the story of […]

  2. […] As I said in my review: […]

  3. […] story is the basis of Liam Davison’s sensitive interpretation in his novel The White Woman (see my review).  But if it was, in general, risky for Aboriginal people to come in contact with White people at […]


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