Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 7, 2020

The Wounded Sinner, by Gus Henderson


The Wounded Sinner was first published in 2018, but though I do my best to keep up with new releases by Indigenous authors, I owe my belated discovery of this novel to Writers WA.  Amongst other writerly activities, they produce resources for readers: a regular newsletter and the ‘Love to Read Local’ Week and a Bookclub.  (They also have a quirky feature called ‘Look Who Loves to Read Local’ featuring famous and not-quite-so-famous people and the WA book they’ve chosen.  Check it out.) Fortunately for me, they featured The Wounded Sinner and I’ve been able to source a copy in time for #IndigLitWeek.

Anyway, my discovery of The Wounded Sinner coincided with the re-opening of my library, and I don’t need to tell you how wonderful that is!  I do have lots of books of my own to read, but going to the library has been part of my life since I was a very small girl, and I had missed it…

The Wounded Sinner is a gritty novel.  Woven around a chance friendship between two men whose relationships are a bit of a mess, it explores the complexities of caring for ageing parents, loyalty to marriages under strain, and the issues of identity for Indigenous people trying to reconnect with their own culture.  Henderson’s profile at Magabala Books explains how he has an intimate understanding of what this means:

Gus Henderson was born in Sydney in 1950, and had a turbulent upbringing, much of it with his aunt and uncle. He says his schooling was forgettable. He joined the Army in 1967 but did not serve in Vietnam. He was married in 1974 and divorced in 1980. He met his current wife in 1980 and has six children and 17 grandchildren. He completed his PhD in Writing at Edith Cowan University and is currently retired. His people are from around the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. Gus and his siblings grew up without any of his Aboriginal family and it has been a struggle over the years to construct a realistic heritage. As children, they were always told not to tell anybody.

This issue of caring for ageing parents is common amongst my age group.  Although they had much else to deal with (the Depression, WW2) our parents mostly did not have this responsibility.  Their parents died of heart disease or cancer in what we would now call middle age, in their fifties and sixties, and sometimes even in their forties. But now, with improvements in health care, it is common for people to live into their eighties, nineties, and even beyond.  My generation, who mostly had children late, are sometimes called the ‘sandwich generation‘ because they are now often grappling with needy millennials and their ageing parents as well.  It’s a phenomenon which is made more complex when relationships between the carer and the ageing parents are not very good.  That’s how it is for Matthew, whose father is a racist and a bigot, and who rejects Matthew’s choice of partner because she is Indigenous.

This makes it all the more difficult when Matthew has to fill in for his father’s carer in Perth, which means that for three weeks out of four he is 830km away from home in Leonora (in the north eastern Western Australian goldfields.  It’s beyond Kalgoorlie, with a population of a bit over 500, and it’s ‘back roads’ remote).  The obvious solution is for the family to move in with Archie in his big old house, but Matthew’s partner, Jeannie, isn’t welcome and neither are their five children.

And Jeanie has her own problems.  Denied her Indigenous heritage in childhood, although she is struggling with her own identity, she wants to be where her people are and reconnect with her heritage.  She makes tentative steps towards making contact but is also confronted by her adolescent daughter Jaylene who is more comfortable and confident with being Wongutha — and is, of course, annoyingly superior about it, as adolescents tend to be about anything when they think they are right and the adults are wrong.  But Jaylene is also right to be deeply suspicious of her mother’s naïve friendship with the local Mr Fix-it, Ben Poulson, who has the kind of attitude towards Indigenous people, and Indigenous women in particular, that will make a reader’s skin crawl.

It all sounds pretty grim, but there are moments of humour too, not least when Matthew’s car breaks down on the road to Perth, and a chap calls Vince stops to help him.  Vince fancies himself as a bush mechanic, so Matthew takes his word for it when he says the car has had it, and so they journey on to Perth in Vince’s Landcruiser.  But 30k out from Merredin, when they have stopped to give Vince a bit of space for some grieving he has to do…

A car approached from the distance, a familiar hum.  Matthew stood up and walked to the apron of the road and began waving frantically, desperately.  A flurry of brown arms and finger gestures waved back in a motorised curse.  His faithless blue Ford came and went at speed, to be swallowed up into the wheat and the heat and the soft black tar, heading towards Perth.  (p.14)

These unlikely mates learn from each other.  Vince’s marriage is in trouble, and so is Matthew’s, though he doesn’t know it yet because he’s taking his woman for granted.  The narration includes flashbacks in Matthew’s life, but Vince’s problems are revealed through events in the story.  He certainly doesn’t want to talk about them:

‘Not eatin’ much pizza, mate?’ Matthew spoke with his mouth half full while picking up another piece; he eyes Vince’s untouched box of marinara covetously.  Too full.  He would finish any leftovers in the morning. ‘You want to talk about it?’ Matthew lit up a cigarette, sank some beer and swatted at a mosquito.  Ah, Australia, buzzing by day and by night.
‘Nah.’
Matthew’s grandad used to say that getting people to talk was like trying to draw Excalibur from the stone.  Sometimes, though, he said, the sword was in there for a good reason.’ (p.141)

Which means, I think, that even though Matthew’s grandfather is presented as a more reasonable character than his thoroughly objectionable son, he’s still one of that cohort of Australians who would rather leave uncomfortable aspects of our history unspoken.

There are book group questions at Writers WA.

Author: Gus Henderson
Title: The Wounded Sinner
Cover deign by John Canty
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2018
ISBN: 9781925768992, pbk., 297 pages
Source: Kingston Library

 


Responses

  1. And I’ve just requested a copy from my library on the strength of your review. Now, Lisa, do you have the same ability to increase my reading time as you do to increase my reading list? ;-)

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  2. Lisa, I’ve just read this one, too. An extraordinary debut novel, I thought. No surprise that Gus Henderson was shortlisted for last year’s Emerging Writer Award in the WA Premier’s Book Awards.

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    • Yes, and congratulations to you too, shortlisted for the Fellowship! My fingers are crossed for you:)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Many thanks, Lisa :-) It’s an honour to be shortlisted—I’m thrilled!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Sorry I’m getting through ILW in a rush (I’m actually struggling with finishing and writing up Growing Up Aboriginal). I know Leonora pretty well, as a passer-through of course, it actually has parking for road trains behind the main street, so it suited me to shop there. And though it never used to be the case, you can’t leave cars by the highway, they are very quickly stripped clean and all the glass broken (unless of course they’re driveable).

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    • One of those lawless kind of places we hear about…
      I find it hard to review anthologies and short stories, I think it’s easier to review a novel…

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  4. Great review, Lisa.
    Thank you,
    Gus.

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    • Hello Gus, thanks for dropping by! Thanks for writing a book I really enjoyed:)
      Would you like to be featured in Meet an Aussie Author? See here for how it works https://anzlitlovers.com/tag/meet-an-aussie-author/ and email me at anzlitloversATbigpondDOTcom if you’d like to participate.

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  5. Hi Lisa, so pleased you discovered this book on the WritingWA site. I wrote the review and the book club notes for this one :-) And yes, it is fabulous, as is your review.

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    • Thanks, Rashida, I owe you one!

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  6. […] thanks to Lisa  (https://anzlitlovers.com/about/) whose review (https://anzlitlovers.com/2020/07/07/the-wounded-sinner-by-gus-henderson/) led me to read this novel.  If only she could deliver me additional reading time at the same […]

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  7. […] by Gus Henderson, shortlisted in last year’s WA Premier’s Book Awards (Emerging Writer categoy)Review by […]

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