Jessica White, Entitlement (Review)
Entitlement is a powerful title for Australian author Jessica White’s second novel, but then White wanted to explore some powerful themes – though they are, unfortunately, somewhat belied by the rural romance/saga looking cover. The author bio at the front of the book tells us that White grew up on a property in northwest New South Wales and it becomes clear very early in the book that she knows whereof she speaks!
Of what does she speak, then, you are probably asking? Entitlement is set in contemporary times on a cattle property near a fictional place called Tumbin. The story starts with 29-year-old Cate McConville, now a practising GP, returning home because her parents wish to sell the property. She, with other family members, is a partner in the business, and all need to agree to the sale. But, Cate’s holding out – not because she loves farming and wants to return, but because her only sibling, her much-loved brother Eliot, had disappeared several years earlier and she wants him to have a home to return to. The farm – the land – also contains her memories of, and therefore her link to, him.
While the plot-line is established gradually, the first chapter sets the book’s tone and style. It tells us there’s tension between Cate and her parents; that memory is going to feature strongly in the telling; and that indigenous issues are likely to be part of the story. The book then progresses, introducing more and more characters over the next few chapters. Each chapter tends to be dedicated to one character, or a small group of characters, and usually involves flashbacks, as the character remembers something from, or reflects on, the past. White handles this well. There are many characters, but the present-flashback narrative style keeps them clear and in their place (if that makes sense). This style does risk becoming a little rigid, but White breaks it up every now and then with a chapter purely set in the present, or one that commences in the past.
Very early, as the characters are introduced, the themes start to become clear. The story is told within two main contexts – farming succession and indigenous connection to land. Over-riding all this is the notion of stolen and lost children. Local indigenous man, Mellor, has worked for a couple of decades for the McConvilles, as had his wife until she’d died of cancer. His extended family, particularly his two aunts, live with him on the edge of the property, and have experienced the stealing of their children. Cate’s father, Blake, is racist and dismissive of indigenous people and their rights, while her mother Leonora, by contrast, is on friendly relations with Mellor and his family.
Now, if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll have read some of my discussions of non-indigenous people writing about indigenous issues. It’s uneasy ground to walk on, but for White, with her farming background, the issues of stolen children and indigenous land rights are things she’s likely to have lived. I’m not surprised she wanted to explore it. Indeed, she wrote a comment on this blog nearly two years ago, saying that this novel:
raises the question of who, in contemporary Australia, is entitled to the land? I also tried to show, through the break up of a white family that was fighting over land, how Indigenous people have been affected by their dispossession. I don’t think it’s a question that can ever be answered, though I did aim for a (probably utopian) resolution at the end of the book.
She couldn’t do this, really, without creating indigenous characters and that means of course that she had to present (her understanding of) their attitudes. I think she’s handled this sensitively, but of course I’m non-indigenous. I did wonder if she’d stepped onto shakier ground when she drew comparisons between Cate’s mother’s loss with that of the stolen generation mothers. However, in her acknowledgements White thanks “Michael Aird and Sarah Martin for their conversations and resources on Indigenous culture and history”. She has not, it seems, walked this ground lightly. And she doesn’t leave it at country and stolen generation issues, but touches on other injustices, such as indigenous health and housing, and racist violence.
White is on safe ground when she discusses the land and farm from Cate’s point of view. I thoroughly enjoyed her descriptions of the landscape and farm life – little scenes of her father and uncle undertaking farm tasks, of Mellor tending to fences, or of Cate running through the land, for example. Here’s a description of an Australia Day picnic:
Flies and mosquitoes plucked at their skin. The scents of the bush were drawn out by the heat and bundled together like a sweet, loosely woven shawl. Kangaroos bounded away in alarm as they made their way up the hill. Crickets whirred, rising from the long grass, and cockatoos screeched.
Her characters, too, are real; they are imperfect, believable human beings. Cate’s inflexibility, her selfish unwillingness to understand the health issues forcing the need to sell, made me cross but the pain, the loss, driving her behaviour is believable. Her parents are presented as having a loving relationship, but not without its tensions and conflicts. And so on.
Entitlement is an engrossing and serious, though not a grim read. As White admits, she does try for a positive resolution, which could almost do the seriousness of the issues a disservice. However, the story is not completely neatly tidied up, presumably because she realised that her question – how do we handle conflicting relationships to this land so many of us call home – does not have a simple answer. It’s therefore important that both indigenous and non-indigenous writers put stories and ideas out there for us to think about. It can only help the discussion, don’t you think?
(Signed copy won in a blog giveaway)