Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 8, 2017

Storyland, by Catherine McKinnon

In the blurb at Goodreads, Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland is described as an unfurling narrative of interlinking stories, in a style reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and so it is, but I would call it ‘Cloud Atlas Lite’ though not in any disparaging sense.  Cloud Atlas was a challenging book, and not just because of its innovative structure.   Shaped by its split narratives without chapter titles or numbering the 500+page book demanded intense concentration and a good memory: it’s one of my rare 5-star novels but it was definitely not an easy read.

Storyland, while sharing the same split narrative structure, is not in the same demanding league.  The five narratives stretch through time in a way that immediately makes sense to us here in Australia, and the narrators are named as well, with a table of contents to convey the blueprint too.

Will Martin 1796
Hawker 1822
Lola 1900
Bel 1998
Nada 2033 and 2717 (huh?  The same person? How can this be?) –

The conclusions of these narratives then travel back in time i.e. in reverse order, starting with Bel’s and finishing with Will Martin’s. Rightly so, the pre-settlement Aboriginal presence is woven through all the narratives, which are connected by an ancient artefact and through the land on which events take place, the Illawarra in NSW.

Will Martin’s narrative derives from the true story of first contact with the Elouera and Wadi Wadi people of Dharawal country, but young Will, although excited by his role as an explorer with Bass and Flinders, can’t foresee its historic importance.  He, a cabin boy in the company of officers with whom he can never forget his lower status, only knows that the future can’t be foreseen. Thanks to Baneelong, a senior man of the Eora people of Port Jackson in Sydney,  Will can name the stars in two languages and this puts his travels into a new perspective:

Now I gaze up at the stars and moon every night and, moreover, speak them in two languages, where once I did not give thought to them at all.

Now I know how big the world is.

Before, not knowing the world’s bigness meant that tomorrow looked like yesterday.

Yet knowing makes it harder to spy ahead, as now I see tomorrow as unmade and know it will always be so.  (p.33)

For Will, the journey in Tom Thumb II means a quest for recognition as well as for precious water.  It is his fault that the water container is contaminated and he wants redemption for that, but he also wants to be treated as an equal by the older men, and he wants his role in their survival and achievements recognised.  His interactions with the people he calls ‘Indians’ are marked as much by fear as by curiosity because he thinks they are cannibals, and his experience with an indigenous friend in Sydney has taught him that he cannot always discover what is fibbery with Na, as everything in this land is strange, and what appears strange may not be.  So Will is always on the alert because he finds the ‘Indians’  unpredictable and therefore untrustworthy.  He places little value on their expertise, expressing surprise that they are unwilling to trade an expertly made axe for a hat or even his shirt.  While reading Will’s narrative I kept remembering Inga Clendinnen’s illuminating Dancing with Strangers which uses the historical record to interpret First Contact events in an open-minded way that is respectful to the Eora.  Clendinnen showed that things could have been different but McKinnon stays true to history.  Fear and confusion trump tentative friendship and before long Will is preparing the shot for the officers’ muskets… while the older men are preparing their triumphalist version of the story for when they return to Sydney.

(BTW There is a children’s book by Christine Hill called The Journey of Tom Thumb II which I would be buying for my school library if I were not so happily retired from teaching!)

A quarter of a century later Hawker’s narrative takes place when settlement has extended to farms and the massacres that accompanied them.  He is a convict, bitter about how his brother in England had married his girlfriend after he’d been transported, and bitter about his prospects of ever getting a ticket-of-leave.  This narrative is also marked by a yearning for recognition: Hawker works harder than the malingerer Lambskin, who is ruining his chances of ever leaving Captain Brooks’s 1300 acres, but he’s also fed up with having to tolerate daily humiliations and the overt contempt of men who regard themselves as his betters.  But Hawker also lusts after one of the Aboriginal women… he doesn’t see the irony of his own contemptuous view of her human rights at all.

In 1900 Lola discovers that same lack of respect.  By now the shortage of white women to marry has translated into children of mixed heritage, and although Lola is a smart and determined young woman running her family’s farm since the death of her parents, ignorant men like their neighbour Mr Dempster objects to his daughter Jewell being friends with Lola and her siblings Abe and Mary.  When Jewell goes missing, it’s the adolescent Abe who is blamed because it is known that he fancied her.  McKinnon captures perfectly Lola’s sense of bewildered disbelief and outrage that men like Dempster consider themselves too good for anyone with dark skin.

McKinnon’s characterisation – and her skill at rendering voice – comes into its own in Bel’s narrative.  She is a precocious 10-year-old, who interprets her confusing world with perceptions both appropriate to her age and yet prescient.  Bel yearns for freedom and adventure too, and even thought there are strict rules it’s a great day when she and her pals escape her ‘helicopter’ parent to raft around Lake Illawarra in an echo of Will Martin’s voyage.  But there Bel and her friends meet an Aboriginal woman adrift in the cynicism of the indigenous art market.  Kristie has a boyfriend who treats her very badly and Bel becomes caught up in violence that her mother never dreamed of.

This novel doesn’t resile from Australia’s violent history: although it’s always offstage, it’s a constant thread in all the narratives.

The narrative set in the future is not just central to the structure of the novel, it’s also central to its purpose.  In telling stories linked by place, memory and special objects Storyland transcends time, connecting our Australian past, present and future.  It’s a book I really liked for the breadth of its imaginary worlds and IMO it is destined for shortlists everywhere.

You can read a sample at the Harper Collins website, and you can hear an interview with the author at ABC RN Books and Arts.

PS There are a growing number of reviews of Storyland but I liked this one at Sam Still Reading.

Author: Catherine McKinnon
Title: Storyland
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins) 2017
ISBN: 9781460752326
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Storyland


Responses

  1. I agree that Storyland will be on many shortlists! I found the future thread particularly scary for its plausibility. Thank you for the link :)

    • Yes, I thought so too. I haven’t signalled because I couldn’t think of a way to discuss it without a spoiler, but since you’ve read it, I can say this: In a way it’s an optimistic PoV because there is still that human need to remember and to tell stories.

  2. This sounds pretty unique but in a good way. I’m heading over to my library to see if I can get my mitts on it. BTW, the Stephen Lang book arrived last week – many thanks 😃

    • You’re welcome! I hope you enjoy both of them:)

  3. It sounds fab but alas no UK publication date 😢

    • That’s a pity, you’d like this one. Maybe they think it’s ‘too Australian’ to sell overseas?

  4. I loved this one too, Lisa. Clever but not showy. The powerful thread of violence and the way it lingers in a place to infect future generations is superbly done. As well as Mitchell, I was also reminded of Ashley Hay’s The Body in the Clouds for that linking of stories in different times but linked by place as much as blood. A very good read.

    • Oh yes, that’s a good link. I’ve just bought Ashley Hay’s new one… *pause, checks shelf* it’s called A Hundred Small Lessons:)
      In that ABC interview McKinnon says she was also influenced by a couple of other books, I’d have to listen again to check which ones they were.


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