Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 4, 2022

When Rosa Came Home (2013), by Karen Wyld

Last year, for Indigenous Literature Week 2021, I read and reviewed Karen Wyld’s most recent novel, Where the Fruit Falls (2020) which won the 2020 Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript; was shortlisted for the 2021 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous Writing and for the 2017 Richell Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript; and longlisted for the Small Publishers’ Adult Book of the Year in the 2021Australian Book Industry Awards.

This year, however, I’ve read her debut novel, When Rosa Came Home. It’s very different. Where the Fruit Falls is a powerful family saga exposing the effects of racism and discrimination on generations of Indigenous people, whereas When Rosa Came Home isn’t overtly about Indigenous issues or characterisation.  Described on Wyld’s website as a carnivalesque novel set in a vineyard suitable for 11 years old to adult, this whimsical YA novel was shortlisted for the People’s Choice Award, 2015 SA Readers and Writers Festival.

The story features a child narrator who is an elective mute and educated at home because of school refusal. This device enables the reader to share her naïve and confused journey towards understanding, while also making her an ideal confidante for secrets.  People talk to her freely, confiding their stories, knowing that she will not repeat what she hears.  Sometimes she is excluded from conversations deemed unsuitable for her ears, but she mostly manages to be in earshot anyway though she doesn’t always makes sense of what she hears.  There is a sense always that something needs to be known, just beyond her reach.

She is also a much-loved child:

Mother looked over at me and, seeing my obvious happiness, smiled. ‘I forget sometimes how inquisitive you are. How clever. It’s not fair that you miss out on so much, just because you are quiet.’ I walked over to her, and wrapped my arms around her. She put an arm around my shoulders, hugging me back. Leaning down, she planted a kiss on the top of my head. I knew that she understood my message; that I never feel as if I have missed anything. Not when I had her, and Poppa, in my life. ‘Ah Angelita, you bring so much sunshine to this house. (pp. 109-110).

Angelita Ambrosio’s family are of Italian origin, running a vineyard in a land not that far away, in a time not that much different from now.  When the story opens the house is preparing for the return of Rosa, a sister estranged for so long that Angelita didn’t know she existed.  Not everyone is delighted by Rosa’s return and the attention she attracts: her presence is most unwelcome to Mona whose name fits her character perfectly.

Rosa is in a coma, a situation that derives from circumstances that are pieced together by a succession of magical visitors to the home.  These include Annette and Nanette, the Flores twins devoted to crochet and to nursing Rosa; a magician called Bruno; a congenial python called Salvador; a dancing cat named Professor Aker, and a horse called Majestico. These artistes reveal that Rosa was a much-loved performer in a circus. From other aspects of her life without the family, there is also a painter called Don Lokko who persuaded Rosa to model for him. and a sea captain called Winters.  Consistent with the fairy-tale elements of this story, there is an arch-villain motivated by jealousy, selfishness and greed. There is even a trail of tempting goodies to lure the unsuspecting Angelita to the wicked witch Hettie!

And like a good fairy tale, there is a happy ending.

Despite this whimsical tone, When Rosa Came Home has themes recognisable in Indigenous writing.  Like many families from the Stolen Generations, this is a family fractured by a family member missing and mourned, gone without farewell and lost without a trace.  The reunion, when it comes, brings great joy but also sadness, because the returned family member is now a stranger to them.  There are years that can never be recaptured, only brought to life piece-by-piece through story-telling, and only if the story can be told by the right person, to the right people. Stories have a belonging of their own, and some stories have restricted currency or may not be told at all.

This is also a story of identity, of characters who are not even aware that they do not know who they really are because of well-intentioned lies, told to avoid shame. This is the experience of some First Nations people whose Aboriginality was concealed for various reasons but always connected to blatant racism. Wyld captures the shock and confusion her character feels when relationships have to be readjusted and a new identity formed.

There is an also Indigenous character called Katia who goes back to Country to be revitalised.  She makes this a spiritual journey when her life is in disarray because she knows that being back on country in the place of her ancestors will ground her.

Finally, though it comes at the beginning of the book, in the prologue the author asserts the responsibility to tell stories and keep them alive, even when sceptics are discouraging.

The storyteller is not a stranger to the sceptic’s microscope; and the heaviness of doubt has worn many down. Still, a bard is duty-bound to keep the magic of word alive. We are tasked with weaving such an engaging narrative that the decrier is silenced, and their fingers cease to itch, content to leave the curtain be. (Wyld, Karen. When Rosa Came Home, Kindle Edition, p3.)

Karen Wyld is of Martu descent, from people of the Pilbara region in Western Australia.

I read this book for First Nations Reading Week 2022.

This post was written on the traditional land of the Ngaruk-Willam clan, one of the six clans of the Bunerong (Boonwurrung or Boon wurrung) saltwater people of the Kulin nation.

Author: Karen Wyld
Title: When Rosa Came Home
Book cover design by Scarlett Rugers Design, Original artwork by Natalis Maroz
Publisher: Karen Wyld, 2013
Source: personal library

Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: