Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 28, 2017

Terra Nullius, by Claire G Coleman

Terra Nullius is the debut novel of Claire G Coleman, an author from WA who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people and a recipient of a Black&Write Fellowship in 2016.

The novel is a retelling of Australia’s colonial history from a disconcerting new perspective.  Chapter One begins with an escape…

Jacky was running. There was no thought in his head, only an intense drive to run. There was no sense he was getting anywhere, no plan, no destination, no future. All he had was a sense of what was behind, what he was running from. Jacky was running. (p.1)

…and an irritable, frustrated nun stuck on a mission in the middle of nowhere:

Sister Bagra paced the oppressively dark, comfortably stuffy halls of her mission is silent, solitary contemplation.  She was dedicated to her duty, to bring faith to these people, if they could be called people; to bring religion, to bring education to these savages.  An almost completely thankless task, a seemingly pointless, useless task.  The recipients of her efforts seemed totally incapable of appreciating what was being done for them, even going so far as resenting her help. (p.2)

So, if the reader knows anything about Australia’s Black History, the story seems familiar: it’s about the settlement of Australia and the colonists’ project to ‘civilise’ the ‘natives’.  Jacky escapes into the bush, and Sister Bagra sends the Troopers out after him.  But by Chapter three, something seems not quite right: a colonial administrator has been told many times it was important to be a people person.  A ‘people person’?  That 21st century expression seems anachronistic for the colonial period, doesn’t it?

Always have faith that an author knows what she’s doing! As the novel progresses there are odd little incongruities here and there, details that seem like mistakes that an editor should have picked up, until about half way through the novel when the penny drops and the reader’s assumptions fall away…

It is very difficult indeed to share with you the sense of excitement in reading this daring, clever novel, without spoiling the surprise and delight of discovery.  All I will reveal is that it tells the story from the perspective of the settlers and the people they dispossess in an utterly unexpected way.

It’s always such a pleasure when an author creates a story like this: a feat of imagination cunningly crafted to make a reader look at things in an entirely different way.  Don’t miss out on this one!


Black&Write Fellowships are an initiative of the State Library of Queensland and the Hachette publishing company, and they’re designed to provide support and encouragement for Indigenous writing by providing prize money of $10,000, manuscript development and a publishing opportunity with Hachette.  I’ve read some  novels by fellowship recipients, and I look forward to reading more.

  • 2013 Jared Thomas for Calypso Summer (see my review) and Tristan Savage for Rift Breaker (see my review)
  • 2014 Adrian Stanley for Could Be Worse (I read an excerpt from this novel in progress in the Griffith Review ‘State of Hope’) and Jane Harrison, Becoming Kirrali Lewis
  • 2015 Jannali Jones for My Father’s Shadow and Alison Whittaker for Lemons in the Chicken Wire
  • 2016 Dylan Coleman for Clear Water White Death and Claire Coleman for Terra Nullius.


Claire G Coleman is a writer from WA who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people.

Author: Claire G Coleman
Title: Terra Nullius
Publisher: Hachette, 2017
ISBN: 9780733638312
Review copy courtesy of Hachette

Available from Fishpond: Terra Nullius


  1. Ah, you have set my curiosity off and wondering (or is that wandering) 😊

    • Good! If your library hasn’t got it, ask them to get it in:)

      • The only library in the Swift Group of libraries that has it is Ballarat – I can get it on inter-library loan.

        • Give it a week or so, it’s very new, just published this week.

  2. Down to Crow Books, my local indie, I go.

    • Bill, trust me, you are going to love this!

  3. Now you’ve intrigued me! I started by just reading the first para, as I usually do with books I haven’t read, but decided to read more, and you have me intrigued.

    • I hope so! It’s really difficult to write about books like this without spoiling them, but at the same time, you want people to seek out the book because it’s good to read!

      • Yes, I could see that was a particular challenge with this one. I’d say you achieved it.

        • I’d love to see what you think of it, #NoPressure I hope you get to it soon…

          • I have to get it first though, before I get TO it!!

  4. The Reading review whet my appetite for this one and you’ve confirmed it. I’ll avoid all other reviews until I’ve read it now – don’t want to risk spoilers.

    • Yes, yesterday I saw a Tweet from the author herself, warning people not to read reviews.

  5. […] with my recent reading of Claire G Coleman’s Terra Nullius, I’m going to have to be careful of […]

  6. […] not see Claire at the festival. However, I read an intriguing review of this book by Lisa Hill at ANZ Lit Lovers which made me think I had no choice. I had to read it.  It’s a retelling of colonial […]

    • Hello Kathryn, I am so glad to have tempted you!

  7. […] the recently released Terra Nullius by Clare G Coleman  (see my review) Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossom is an emerging trend in Indigenous fiction: subversive and […]

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