An historical novel which brings to life the unfortunate experience of small groups of people brought to Europe in the 1880s, this is a book of large themes and horrors. Hilda is a young woman who has travelled to Fraser Island, Australia and spent six years there, learning of and experiencing at first hand the Badtjala people, their family links, traditions and superstitions. When her father, a troubled engineer, decides to take three of the surviving tribe members to Germany and beyond, Hilda believes that it is to help raise funds for a reserve in which they can live safely. This is a complex tale told in journal entries, third person narration and from the viewpoint of a ghostly interpreter. The three individuals they take, Bonny, Jurano and Dorondera, are far more vulnerable than they at first seem, especially to the exploitation and more that they face. This is a book in which the settings of nineteenth century Europe really come alive, and the attitudes towards the “other” are demonstrated in all their painful reality. This is a novel which deals with the nuances of the treatment of people who were denied voices then, and has therefore something to say about how people are treated today. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.
The book opens with Hilda remembering her mother and observing her father as they live amid the tribespeople in almost dreamlike circumstances. Several of the older people remember losses of loved ones, yet there are also the small touches of humour as the natural world affects the dances and lives of the people and Hilda’s friends. She mourns her mother, and remembers vividly the things she said, how she looked, how she wrote in her journal. Hilda has a close relationship with the tribespeople, and taking the three individuals abroad creates all sorts of feelings for her, the desire to protect them, the fear of their embarrassment and suffering. Their experiences are hurtful in many ways, their living quarters insulting, and there is an enthusiasm to treat them as exhibits, objects to be measured, anything but people. Bonny in particular is physically strong, determined and focused on his intention to see Queen Victoria in person, but even he struggles to retain his dignity and sense of self in the face of challenges. The young woman, Dorondera, suffers from the indignity of being surrounded by men who want to examine her, treat her as an object, claiming that the needs of science overcome the considerations of common humanity.
This is a novel of showmanship, of how the prospect of financial gain can overcome conscience. This is not the hopeful world of the earliest circus celebrated in film, but of the sordid shows of people from other ethnic groups, treated like animals, with little concern for their well being and dignity. Written off as being less than human, Hilda sees their sadness. This book is full of the spirits, the stories and the impossible to explain elements of a life so different from that experienced in Europe, and Johnson writes so powerfully of the pain of that misunderstanding. Johnson is so good on the telling details of people encountered that many people spring from the story making it a complex tale. I recommend this book as a powerful exploration of lives lived in the shadow of discrimination and more, with many implications for today’s world.
I found this a complex and painfully honest book. It certainly shows a very different type of historical novel from many I have reviewed on this blog, which shows the variety in this genre. It is a very powerful read.