Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 10, 2017

Home, by Larissa Behrendt

Home (2004) is the debut novel of Larissa Behrendt of the Eualeyai/Kamilaroi people.  A lawyer and an Aboriginal activist, Behrendt went on to write the novel Legacy (2009, see my review) and also Finding Eliza, Power and Colonial Storytelling (2016, see my review).  Home won the David Unaipon Award as an unpublished manuscript in 2002 and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, South East Asia and South Pacific Region, Best First Book, 2005.  It tells an important story… but I think it needed tighter editing at UQP to bring the narrative into shape.  It reads a bit like a sprawling and sometimes unconvincing family saga that strays here and there into heavy-handed historical and legal backgrounding, and these flaws detract from the significant issues raised by the novel.

Like many debut novels, Home appears to have autobiographical elements.  The story is bookended by the story of Candice, who, like the author, is a successful, well-travelled lawyer working in indigenous land rights issues.  Like the author, the characters have German and Indigenous ancestry, and so they have skin which varies in colour from light to dark, raising questions of identity and racism.  Some of them can ‘pass for white’ and until their Aboriginality is revealed they are treated with friendship and respect because they are thought to be Mediterranean or exotic.  But their ‘whiteness’ means that they also suffer crudely racist commentary because their companions do not expect that an Indigenous person could be among them.  For these characters there is always the dilemma and invidious choice about how and who to be.  (During and after WW1 and WW2, some of the characters also suffer anti-German prejudice, but this is one of a number of side issues in the novel).

At the start of the novel Candice is making her first trip ‘home’ to her country, a situation that has arisen because her father did not know about his Aboriginality until well into adulthood.  As the middle sections of the book reveal, the story of this fragmented family begins with Garibooli in 1918, when she is abducted from her family by the authorities and placed directly into domestic service in Parkes NSW, in the dysfunctional home of Lydia and Edward Howard whose marriage is a farce. Garibooli is renamed Elizabeth and works eleven hour days unpaid under the direction of their housekeeper Frances Grainger, one of the generation of women bereft by the war.

The inevitable happens, and both characterisation and plot falter when – instead of being packed off to fend for themselves as most pregnant ‘kitchen girls’ would have been – Elizabeth is sent to Sydney with the housekeeper for the duration (leaving the Howards back in Parkes without any staff??).  She has the baby, a boy which she names Euroke after her brother but he is promptly removed for adoption.  She then returns to service with the Howards (who presumably have some explanation for this odd behaviour to satisfy the local gossips).  Frances Grainger who has previously been a kind if demanding taskmaster now develops a hatred for Elizabeth because in her loneliness she has been harbouring romantic fantasies about Mr Howard and is jealous that it was Elizabeth who took his fancy.  Mrs Howard keeps Elizabeth in the house because she wants to taunt her husband with his infidelity on a daily basis.  The explanation for this quixotic behaviour just isn’t convincing, and the ponderous prose doesn’t help.

Lydia’s vengeful plan to keep Elizabeth in the house did not play out as she had intended.  She found herself consuming the poison she had laid out for Edward.  Though she pretended distraction, Lydia watched the girl’s every movement carefully as quick hands polished silver, dusted, oiled, cleaned.  She wanted to find out what it was that had attracted Edward, but the only distinctive features were the dark skin and even darker eyes.  She concluded that her husband, unable to express himself to her, had used the girl.  Her reasoning attempted to account for his actions but settled nothing within her. When he expressed an opinion about the lack of character of the new doctor or criticised an editorial in the newspaper she felt the festering of her inability to forgive him.  Lydia concluded that the danger must come from the girl, that the evil must emanate from within her.  (p. 92)

(It’s interesting that the childless Howards don’t find some way of keeping Elizabeth’s son as their own.  I was expecting some kind of rueful introspection from Edward about giving away his only child, but it doesn’t happen.  The reader is not, of course, meant to feel sorry for a man who repeatedly rapes a vulnerable teenage girl, but still, a more mature characterisation might have shown this character feeling some regret.  Anyway Euroke disappears out of the story altogether when I was expecting him to resurface at some stage, if only as a poignant symbol of Stolen Generations who were never reunited with their families.)

Ok, moving on…

Elizabeth, who up to now has been a dutiful servant in the hope that one day her family will come to rescue to her, now takes matters into her own hands.  She tries escaping but without money for the train fare is soon defeated.  It is this event, however, that enables Miss Grainger to utter the fateful words that resonate throughout the years:

Miss Grainger arrived to take her home.  She did not understand why she had followed Elizabeth to the train station, was surprised that she had any pity left in her.

‘You don’t want any more trouble, ‘ she said with a sigh as she offered Elizabeth a handkerchief.  As Elizabeth gratefully took it, she added, ‘If your family had wanted you, they would have come for you by now.’ (p. 93)

These words haunt Elizabeth, and deter her from ever searching for her family. (But I don’t find her gratitude for a hankie convincing.  Why didn’t the editor remove this silly adjective?)

But Elizabeth does escape, by marrying Grigor Brecht who she meets at the Chinaman’s shop.  She has six children, whose fortunes form the rest of the middle section of the book.  Two are lost to her because of WW2, and Patricia the oldest, at seventeen briefly becomes mother to the younger three when Elizabeth dies young, leaving Grigor a bereft alcoholic.  But he soon loses custody of these three to the welfare authorities.  Again the characterisation falters as Elizabeth, too good to be true, leaves her father to endure long hours of underpaid work as an exploited dress designer in Sydney so that she can eventually provide a home for her ungrateful siblings when they are allowed to leave the institution.  Although they suffer jibes from people who suspect it, it is this generation that does not know about its Aboriginal ancestry because Elizabeth suppresses her memories of her early life, Grigor insists that she is as white as anybody, and Patricia dies young too, without telling her siblings any fragmentary memories of their mother.

The characterisation of Daisy and Daniel, the dysfunctional two youngest, is illustrative of the psychological damage caused by institutionalisation, but it’s overdone.  Neither of them have any redeeming features, especially in contrast with Patricia who endures their cruelty, blaming and rejection like a martyr.  Bob, who is the eventual father of Candice and as the eldest of the institutionalised three, is the first to be released into Patricia’s care.  But as an adult he becomes an abusive husband, insisting on a patriarchal role.  His wife Carolyn is an unlikely doormat, given that by the time this happens it’s the 1980s and the women’s movement is well-established, but she gives up her career at his demand and finds fulfilment in her children.

Other more unlikely events concern Thomas.  Without revealing spoilers, I found it unconvincing that in WW2 he could circumvent Australia’s racist enlistment laws by going to the UK to enlist in the RAF.  Where did the money come from?  It took weeks by ship and it cost a small fortune to travel in the days before the jet age, beyond the reach even of middle-class Australians.  And how did he circumvent wartime restrictions on travel for private passengers?  And then he gets into Oxford to get his doctorate?  Just like that?? Hmm.

Home is not an entirely successful novel, but the author’s choice to fictionalise a family’s pain through the Stolen Generations is a potent reminder of the long-term damage done.  It also shows the strength and resilience of the generation rediscovering its roots, and the possibility of transcending the damage.

This is my sixth (and final) book for Indigenous Literature Week 2017.  I have other books by Indigenous authors to read, but I’ll read them during the year.  I don’t just read books by Indigenous authors during ILW, but any time!

Author: Larissa Behrendt
Title: Home
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2004
ISBN: 9780702234071
Source: Personal library, purchased secondhand from Fishpond.

Available from Fishpond: Home (On the day I looked there were both new and secondhand copies).


Responses

  1. […] Home (2004) see my ANZ LitLovers review […]

  2. I’m not a fan of family sagas – I prefer to focus on just one character, and see everything from their point of view. But it’s easy to see why this was the book Behrendt ‘had to write’. Her Eliza Fraser was excellently argued, and she can clearly write, but perhaps fiction is not her strength.

    • Yes, spot on, Bill, a book ‘she had to write’. A lot of first novels are about ‘getting things off the chest’ and I think the multiplicity of issues in this one are a sign of long-held frustrations.

  3. I find a lot of family sagas get bogged down with two many generations and stories.

    • Maybe in this case there were too many characters in the generation born to Elizabeth, and then each one had to be followed through at length, bringing in even more characters. That suits the airport novel type of family saga, but this is not meant to be like that, I think it’s meant to be an expose not an historical novel or romance.

  4. I read Larissa Behrendt’s novel, Home, about four years ago. The conflicted relationship between Patricia and Daniel are more poignant in my memory. I was struck by Behrendt’s exploration of forced child abduction, domestic labor positions, and Catholic mission homes for Aboriginal children. During the time I read the novel and conducted minimal research on the forced removal of mixed race aboriginal children, I didn’t come across information on sexual abuse cases of them by Catholic clergymen. Even though there were testimonials of Aboriginal women being raped, I didn’t hear of any involving Aboriginal males. The fragmented networks of black indigenous families and clans, cultural loss, substance abuse struggles, and poverty suffered by the victims was depicted well by Behrendt.

    In terms of narrative style of the novel, I think that Behrendt was influenced by nineteenth century sentimentalism in terms of characterization, setting, and plot. For some readers, the sentimentalism common in early British literature may not work for portraying life experiences and real-life historical events and situations in the postmodernist times.

    Your review Lisa has compelled me to read Larissa Behrendt’s second novel, Legacy, paying more critical attention to its narrative structure. Thank you for your review. It was interesting to read. –Sonia

    • Thanks Sonia, your thoughts here make me wonder… when authors write novels, of course they are influenced by what they’ve read and recognise as possible models for what they plan to do. I think you’re right, the form of the novel in Home is (despite sandwiching it between moments later in time) very traditional. Marie Munkara is more experimental in telling her stories… In A Most Peculiar Act, for instance, she begins each ‘chapter’ with a quotation from the Act of Parliament which controlled Aboriginal lives, and then satirised it. It was very effective.

      • Yes, I read Marie Munkara’s novel, A Most Peculiar Act. I agree with you Lisa that the structure of her narrative is experimental and her use of humor and irony is intriguing. However, I think that the excerpts from the Act of Parliament at the beginning of each chapter was a bit lengthy. Some of the details could’ve been peered down in order to create balance between the legal document and the fictional narrative which doesn’t take away from the authentic experience of the female protagonist.

        • Ah, now you see, I liked those excerpts. Must be that law degree I started, the language gets into the head and stays there…


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