Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 4, 2021

Our Shadows (2020), by Gail Jones

Well, I was rather pleased to be wrong about this book!

I won’t share my dismissive thoughts from my journal about Sixty Lights  (2004) or Dreams of Speaking (2007) by Gail Jones: suffice to say that having read two novels by this author I had decided that her style was not for me.  But because Gail Jones has so consistently been included in awards here and overseas, I went on buying her books because — although her novels do attract mixed reviews — I suspected that I was missing out on something. The TBR grew and grew, but Five Bells (2011) and A Guide to Berlin (2015) survived the occasional culls.

Released in 2020, Our Shadows has in 2021 been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Fiction, longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, and shortlisted for the ARA Historical Novel Prize. Brona’s review at This Reading Life and Kim’s at Reading Matters prompted me to read it for myself…

Paddy Hannan (1929) by John McLeod (Wikipedia)

Set partly in Kalgoorlie WA, the novel threads through the birth of the city when gold was found there in 1893 by an Irish émigré and the fraught family history of estranged sisters Frances and Nell Kelly who were born in the 1970s.  The story begins with Paddy Hannan in Ireland and traces his decision to flee the Great Hunger and seek a better chance at survival on the Victorian goldfields.  He doesn’t have much luck, either with with his marriage or with prospecting, until he sails to Fremantle, walks the 600-odd km to Kalgoorlie, and makes a lucky find.  In Chapter 3 we meet Nell and Frances in the late 1980s, bold and defiant girls on the cusp of their teenage years, for whom Paddy is nothing more than a statue on Hannan Street: there was no pioneer reverence and no point of connection.

It was hard to imagine beyond her own story.  When Frances thought of her family in this place, in Paddy Hannan’s place, they seemed melodramatic, as if lodged in the wrong century.  Theirs was a tale of bad luck, the mischance of orphanhood and fate.  Nell and she had been born only eighteen months apart, and after their mother died at her birth, they were dispatched to their grandparents as a cruel compensation.  The couple wept together over the bubs and were inconsolable.  It was 1977. (p.12-13)

Kalgoorlie Super Pit (Wikipedia)

The sisters’ bad luck extends to their father Jack abandoning them for reasons never explained and Aunt Enid’s often malevolent presence in this devastated household where the girls’ grandfather Fred was by then fifty-eight, sick from working in the gold mines and nightly hacking out his lungs in a shuddering growl.  His wife Else was 56.  The mine which brought wealth but not contentment to Paddy has visited silicosis on generations of working men, just as the mine at Wittenoom made Frances a young widow when her husband Will, like his father, died of mesothelioma (the asbestos disease) because he and his brother Mark played as children in the tailings.  This strand of the novel in the near present, signalled by climate change concerns, begins in Chapter 5.  The intergenerational damage done to the health of the miners is intertwined with ongoing damage to the environment, referenced by the Kalgoorlie Super Pit: until recently the largest open cut gold mine in the world at 3.5 kilometres long, 1.5 kilometres wide and over 600 metres deep.  But the resilience of the traditional owners surfaces amid the stark landscape of Lake Ballard, and also in the character of Val who is confident about her own heritage and more articulate about art than the poseurs in the gallery where Frances works in Sydney.

This structure, a patchwork of events moving backwards and forwards through time makes Our Shadows a book that some readers will want to journal as they read.  It’s like the wave that features on the front cover, referencing Japanese artist Hokusai’s The Great Wave.  The novel ebbs and flows across time and place, and comments on a shifting cultural landscape.  Interleaved with the chapters about Paddy and the girls’ past and present, are fragments of thought from Else, one of the tormented elders in a locked aged care unit in Sydney.  Frances, who suffers the weariness of always being the one to organise things because of Nell’s fragile mental health, visits her regularly but fails to make much sense of what is said.  Readers need to be alert to catch the meaning of the scraps as well:

War huh
what was it good for

absolutely nothing
the cleaner’s radio

Clear today cleaner
words cleaner today the names

Fred and Marty imagine.  And the few words he sent her but still  (p.106)

To make sense of this the reader needs to remember that Fred had been a POW on the Burma Railway and then sent to work in the Fukuoka #17 – Omuta Prisoner of War Camp when nearby Nagasaki was bombed.

And before that, he wrote stilted letters to Else, intimidated by the differences between them.

When he shipped out with the 8th Division, he felt suddenly his own fear.  What had he done, leaving his lovely wife Else?  By now he missed her so badly, she spilled into his dreams.  Nightly he found her there, waiting, ready; and nightly he was disappointed and left alone.  He laboured over a letter, but it was empty, insufficient.  Prevented from revealing where he had trained and where he would be sent, he’d jotted a few chirpy lines—guess who I’ve seen here! Your favourite dancer — and signed a cheesy SWALK, Sealed With A Loving Kiss, just as she had taught him. Nothing that was in his heart was written down.  Nothing of the giant, heavy love that he bore for her.  Nothing that meant anything true and sincere. She was a book person, and would know how inadequate he was, how thin in expression and dumb with real feelings.  The soldiers were encouraged to send a letter with their deployment, so he sent it anyhow.  He imagined her reading it in rosy lamplight, kissing the single page fondly, like a woman in the movies. (p.105)

Else’s loss of communication due to dementia echoes Fred’s paucity of language while the sisters’ use of a secret code for private communication contrasts with the silences of their estrangement.  Others refuse to communicate: Paddy Hannan refuses to be interviewed about his pioneering find because it triggers memories of the Great Hunger in Ireland.  Fred refuses to talk about his war and he lies to protect the mother of Marty his mate, who was brutally murdered by the Japanese because he was learning the Japanese language from one of the guards.  They did this because language means power, as we see with Val’s dexterity in code-switching and her selective decisions about when to translate from Martu language or not.

Throughout the novel, thoughts and memories surface unbidden despite Aunt Enid’s insistence that the girls should not dwell on the past.

Brona’s review is more writerly than mine: she has engaged with the symbolism of the shadows, including how scenes in the book shadow each other, while Kim at Reading Matters focusses on the sisters’ relationships and the love and loss in their lives.  Jennifer’s from Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large popped into my inbox this morning and it took great self-control not to look at it till now.  I wish I had peeked first, we’ve both talked about how the narrative ebbs and flows! I recommend that you read them all.

Image credit:

Author: Gail Jones
Title: Our Shadows
Cover design by Chong W.H.
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 9781922330284, pbk., 309 pages
Source: Kingston Library


  1. Hm, after my experience of trying (but failing) to engage with A Guide to Berlin I wouldn’t have been in a hurry to pick up another book by Gail Jones. But having read your commentary plus Kim’s and Brona’s I’m wavering. Patrick Hannan’s surname is so close to my own they probably derive from the same source. Is this a good reason to read the book? No, not really, but I’m certainly now curious


    • I hear you, Karen, and so do many readers in respect of this author. I don’t mind challenging books, in fact I seek them out, but — like some critics much more knowledgeable than I’ll ever be — I don’t think Jones always succeeds in the way that the book turns out. Having said that, with this one I deliberately avoided going down the rabbit hole of symbolism because her IMO heavy-handed symbolism is what put me off the previous two novels. I read it as a story, and I read it to see what happened and although that in itself was difficult because of the fractured storyline, I enjoyed reading it. It was interesting learning about aspects of the Kalgoorlie story, and there were issues that interested me beyond the domestic estrangement of the sisters.


  2. I was “this many years old” when I realized that Gail Jones and Gayl Jones are not the same author. No wonder so much has not made sense!


    • *chuckle*!


    • This made me laugh. I saw a tweet about a new Gayle Jones recently and I got excited thinking it was “our” Gail Jones and then the penny dropped.


  3. I’ve never read Gail Jones nor paid her much attention, but as this is home territory – I have lots of inlaws in Kalgoorlie and have spent plenty of time working there – and she is a West Australian, or was, I probably should make a start. Milly’s just had a birthday but I could give it to her for Christmas ..


    • If I may offer you one piece of advice, this is not one that would work as an audiobook. It’s too fractured/layered for that.


  4. I am so glad that you enjoyed it, Lisa.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought it was so funny that when I finally finished writing mine late last night, I went to read yours which had been open on my screen all day, and we had used exactly the same turn of phrase! Great minds think alike, eh?

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I had a funny feeling you might like this book, Lisa. I like how you picked up on the communication (or lack there of) angle.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m glad you found something to engage with in Our Shadows Lisa. At the time, I found the book a bit of a struggle to finish, and I do not remember a lot about the sisters or their relationship. But the setting (Kalgoorlie in particular) and some of the WWII stories, and the art, fascinated me, and still does months later.

    Thanks for the link :-)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that art (that you feature in your review) is remarkable.
      It’s a book that ranges far and wide, and in some ways it has something for everyone. But the structure i.e. the fractured sequence of events and characters’ relationships does make it challenging to read. I started getting lost early on and started taking notes, but if I’d been reading it in July-August when I couldn’t write, I don’t know what I would have made of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I see I own The House of Breathing. I’ll move it up to #2 in the queue


    • What’s No #!?


      • Another Australian woman author, I’ve had for ever. I decided to review her for Brona’s Aus Reading month

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Good for you Lisa! You’ve read another Jones. I haven’t read your post – just the opening and summation of other bloggers’ reviews. If I get to this book, as I’d love to, I’ll do just that – check you all out.


  9. […] Gail Jones, Our Shadows (Text Publishing), see my review […]


  10. […] Gail Jones, Our Shadows (Text Publishing), see my review […]


  11. […] Our Shadows, by Gail Jones […]


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