Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 25, 2017

The Custodians (1997), by Nicholas José

The Custodians, first published in 1997, was Nicholas José’s fifth novel, and it captures my generation perfectly.  Tracing the lives of characters who came to adulthood in the heady 1970s, it depicts the idealism and the optimism, the delusions and pretensions, and the steady disenchantment of adult life in the real world.  It’s a big, heavy book, nearly 500 pages in my first edition, and it’s big and ambitious in its preoccupations.  I’m a bit surprised it wasn’t nominated for the Miles Franklin, but 1997 was a very strong year with books by David Malouf, Thea Astley, Janet Turner Hospital, John A Scott, Robert Dessaix and Robert Drewe, with the prize eventually going to David Foster’s The Glade within the Grove.  So The Custodians hasn’t had as much attention as I think it deservesdespite a 2012 paperback reissue in the Allen & Unwin House of Books seriesand an impressive blurb from no less than an authority than Simon Schama

A brilliantly vivid tapestry of the Australian predicament, rich in possibility, but shot through with accident and revelation. Through it all breathes the ancient reality of the land: its red earth and bright air painted with the sure hand of a master.’ – Simon Schama, A&U website,  (where, bizarrely, it has been categorised as Popular Fiction.  Have they read it??)

Anyway, I found it very satisfying reading over a number of days…

The main characters start life in Adelaide, and leave it for what they think is a more exciting life elsewhere.  Jane is a painter in love with the light in Sydney; Wendy is an indolent thrill-seeker with a penchant for dubious company;  Elspeth the heiress wants enlightenment but not if it involves parting with her money; and Josie wants to be good and thinks she can be, as a nun.

José fleshes out the characterisation of the men a bit more, especially Alex, clever and ambitious but always wanting to keep his options open.  At ANU he studies economics, Australian history and law, and he won’t commit to a relationship with Jane in case something better comes along.  (He keeps Josie ‘in reserve’ back in Adelaide until – to his chagrin – she joins the nunnery).  Ziggy is a charismatic thespian; and René is an ideologue spouting dialectics and Chinese communism with Alex at ANU.  On the fringes of their childhood group are Aboriginal boys from the Stolen Generations: Cleve, a scholarship boy at a Catholic boarding school, and Danny who stumbles from one institution to another, marginalised further by his reticence and his illiteracy.

While the relationships between these characters hold the book together, the themes of The Custodians unfold as Australia comes of age in the 1970s.  With the finding of Moorna Woman (an event fictionalised from the discovery of Mungo Woman) Australian history turns out to be much older than first thought, and the emerging empowerment of Aboriginal Australians under a reforming government (based on the Whitlam Years) means that the pastoral land on which the bones are found becomes contested.  Chinese investors make an appearance as Australia turns to Asia, and their Australian interpreter, a character loosely based on the communist sympathiser Wilfred Burchett, has to decide where his loyalties lie.

Betrayals are everywhere.  Josie betrays her religious vows, and she betrays the father of her child.  Alex unwittingly betrays Elspeth when, from his lofty position of power in Canberra, he nominates her property in remote NSW for World Heritage.  He also betrays his minister in a political stoush between ministries.  Jane betrays her own art and her feminist ambitions; Ziggy lets grubby sex sabotage his acting career.  Wendy and her lover Alfonzo both abandon their child though in different ways and for different reasons.  In choosing to live a life of luxury with a drug-dealer, Wendy has abandoned ethics altogether.

Wendy thought it bourgeois of Jane to be offended by Alfonzo.  Morality, she thought, was itself immoral.  In all his years Alfonzo had not tripped up.  If people were vulnerable to exploitation, that was their decision, their choice, their risk-taking, their death-wish.  There was big money to be made, and what big money was ever made out of tender regard for other people’s susceptibility?  You could not protect people from themselves.  Wendy’s only problem was with the risk.  She did not want her parents involved.  She delighted in Alfonzo’s cleverness at being able to live with enviable ease.  (p.227)

It’s the system that betrays Danny.  Stolen from his family as a little boy, inarticulate and illiterate, he is an emblem of the damage done by institutionalisation, and his gruesome death symbolises the tragic problem of Black Deaths in Custody.  Without labouring the point, José uses Danny’s twin brother Cleve to articulate the dilemma of not knowing his own identity.   Although Cleve receives instant acceptance from the community, some connections can’t ever be restored, and not knowing is indelible.  Visiting Elspeth on the property that’s been hers for generations, he tells her that his adoptive family dropped him when their ‘goodness’ bargain with God failed to save the life of their biological child.  He doesn’t blame them for this:

‘… No, they’re good people.  I owe them something.  They took me from the Home when I was a kid.  Three of four, I suppose.’

‘You must remember something.’

‘Nuh.  Nothing.’

‘It just seems strange that you came back to this part of the world.  Those Adamses used to have a place down the river from here, according to my mother, near my Masterman cousins.’

Shaking his head, as if to throw off a demon, Cleve turned to her with a forced smile.  ‘I’m not being rude or anything.  It’s just that I don’t know anything about it so there’s nothing much to talk about.  Imagine that, can you, when you know all about your great-grandfather and your cousins and all them.  This place could be my place for all I know.’ (p.203)

At Nulla, Cleve finally hears the story of his abduction by the Welfare from Old Joe who heard it many times from his wife Mary:

Cleve was a smart little three-year-old.  He knew where to run. He had his hiding place in the chook shed.  Little Daniel was more confused.  He wanted to follow Cleve, his older twin, as he did in everything else, but their mother told them always to separate if the Welfare came.  Daniel ran down towards the river to the logs of fallen trees where he hid when they played hide-and-seek.  Rhonda and Arthur ran ahead towards the river.  Mary and the baby followed in the same direction but at a slower pace.

The Welfare car stopped and a man in a navy suit, a lady in a nurse’s uniform and the driver in creased khaki shorts and long white socks stepped out.  They were striding round the yard.  Mary ducked behind the broad trunk of a tree and pressed against its bark.  Then the baby, squeezed against its mother’s heaving bosom, began to cry.  The Welfare man was marching towards the river, his feet crunching the bark and leaves.  Before Mary could gag the baby’s mouth, the man had made a beeline for the tree.  Mary was too frightened to run.  The man came round the tree and gave a smile to discover mother and child at their game.

‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ he asked as he reached out calmly for the infant.  (p.213)

José’s understated style offers many interesting observations about human nature.  In Italy where Elspeth is learning to be an art conservationist, she is befriended by an Australian family, and with her lover Guigi she goes on a picnic with them.  They visit Monterchi in Tuscany, a hilltop village where in 2005 we shared a villa with friends for ten days.

On a spring Sunday the Dales suggested an outing.  Margie took pleasure in preparing a proper picnic with sandwiches that would not fall apart, chicken legs, fruit salad in plastic containers, plates, paper towels, salt and pepper, chocolate cake, wine, wineglasses, and not forgetting a corkscrew to open the bottle.  They took a bus to the nearby village that housed Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto and found the strange monumental painting on the wall of the little church next to the cemetery.  The virgin was standing in a tent with angels on either side of her holding open the flaps.  She was looking down with concern, pointing to a slit in her gown through which her pregnancy swelled as the momentous parturition began.  ‘It’s sliced open by time,’ said Rod admiringly. (p.167)

How cunningly understated is José’s representation of Margie!  This family has been in Tuscany for three years while Rod Dale pursues his artistic ambitions.  Margie has scrimped and saved to enable it, hoping only that her kids would grow up independent and unfussy. She has had occasion to resent Elspeth’s extravagance when she helps herself to more than her fair share of things, but now her picnic menu shows her inability to adapt.  Not a sign of unfussy Italian cuisine – and in a place where a cheap enoteca would have welcomed her children and make a great fuss of them!

José shows Alex’s preoccupation with power, from childhood bullying to manipulation in Canberra.  There are some amusing sequences that I recognised as thinly-veiled portraits of the machinations behind Bob Hawke’s ascent to the prime ministership, and some passages show an intimate knowledge of how power operates:

Life in the capital had taught Alex how political power worked in its several phases: the power of senior politicians channelled through the projects they personally wanted to see realised, or through the people they were loyal to, or who were loyal to them; the power of the bureaucracy, greater than the power of politicians when it came to where the money went and what actually happened, but hedged around by process, complexity, inertia, rivalry, accountability; the sway of public opinion, through media, lobby groups and the unpredictable shifts of community attitudes; all these Alex could manipulate and ride now, to serve his masters one way, the party another, and himself yet another.  He had seen many of his contemporaries bail out because Canberra was not about money of hedonism or the adventure of your own creativity, except in coded ways, but he did not really expect anyone to care that his own faceless successes were, in their own way, as great as Jane’s and Ziggy’s public, self-achieved triumphs.  It was enough that there should be a moment of awed silence when people heard he worked in the Department of the Prime Minister.  Politics depended on the fearful attraction of those close to power.  (p.233)

The Custodians is absorbing reading, especially for people of my generation.  Highly recommended.

Author: Nicholas José
Title: The Custodians
Publisher: Pidador (Pan Macmillan), 1997
ISBN: 9780330352710 (first edition, hbk).
Source: personal library

There were three secondhand copies at Fishpond on the day I looked: The Custodians


  1. With these big themes I can see why it takes 500 pages to do justice to them.


    • I’ve just realised what it reminds me of, in scope and style: The Northern Clemency. That was a terrific book…


  2. Thanks Lisa, I hadn’t heard of this book or the author before.


  3. I’ve got a couple more of his on the TBR, to tempt you with another time!


  4. […] My last three books have all been great reading, and interesting to me is that all three – The Custodians; Haxby’s Circus and now An Accidental Terrorist  are from the backlist.  In a way it should […]


  5. […] The Custodians (1997) by Nicholas José […]


  6. […] My last three books have all been great reading, and interesting to me is that all three – The Custodians; Haxby’s Circus and now An Accidental Terrorist  are from the backlist.  In a way it should […]


  7. […] The Custodians (1997), on my TBR, Shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize 1997 (South-East Asia), see my review […]


  8. […] The Custodians by Nicholas Jose […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: