Claire G. Coleman’s debut novel, Terra nullius, was my reading group’s third book for this year. The first two – An unnecessary woman (my review) and The sympathizer (my review) were well liked – but not so Coleman’s book. In fact that I was the only one who liked it. So, instead of my usual review, I’ve decided to tease out some of the issues my group had with the book, and see where I end up. I didn’t take notes at the meeting, so I’m relying on my memory. I may not have got all the issues down, or down correctly, but I’ll give it my best shot. In doing so, I’ll also draw on GoodReads because its users tend to be general readers, like you finding reading groups.
First though, a brief introduction for those who don’t know the book. Terra nullius starts off reading like an historical fiction novel about the colonial settlement of Australia and the concurrent dispossession of our indigenous people. Coleman’s world of Settlers and Natives, of Troopers and Trackers, of Missions to which stolen children are taken for education, of a Department for the Protection of Natives, and so on, mimics colonial Western Australia in particular, but it’s not long before hints start to appear that all is not as we’ve assumed. Before halfway, all is revealed, and we realise we are not reading historical fiction, but speculative fiction set in some near future. It is, as a result, not about indigenous Australians versus white colonists, but about colonised people of all races versus settler-colonists (“grey fellas”) from somewhere else. This realisation is unsettling, and clever, because it forces non-indigenous readers to switch identification from the colonisers to the colonised.
Now to my reading group’s response. The over-riding criticism was that it was repetitive and tedious. This is the criticism I could most understand, because partway through the novel’s second half I felt the momentum flag a little, which I put down to the structure. It’s multi-stranded, with the stories of different people or groups running parallel for a significant portion of the book. The strands include Native Jacky who is on the run; Settler Sister Bagra who runs a Mission; Settler Sergeant Rohan who leads the posse which is hunting Jacky; Esperance and her camp of free, renegade Natives; and deserter-Settler Johnny Star who is taken in by some rebel Natives. Fortunately, just as I wondered whether the separate groups – the separate strands – were ever going to come together, two things happened. A new character, Father Grark, appeared, and the strands did start to coalesce. These, along with other factors including the writing itself, were enough to prevent the book’s becoming tedious for me.
However, my reading group friends weren’t alone in their criticism. One GoodReads reviewer described it as “gratingly repetitive” and another overall positive reviewer had “some minor quibbles”, of which the main one was that “some elements of the story were repetitive”.
Another criticism made by some of my group was that they weren’t interested in any of the characters. Some GoodReads reviewers concurred. One didn’t “connect with any of the characters” and another said that “the characters, the individuals, are basic, with no complex motivations, no desires”. This surprised me, because I was interested in several of the characters, and I looked forward to their next appearance. One was Esperance, the young woman living with that renegade camp of Natives. Another was Jacky, who is the first character we meet and who, for over half the novel, struggles on alone, trying to survive and keep one step ahead of his pursuers. There are, though, a lot of characters, and I can see the argument that many of them have “no complex motivations”. However, I’m not sure that deep characterisation is always essential for speculative, dystopian fiction, such as this book is. Anyhow, regardless of this point, I can’t accept the argument that none have desires. Esperance and Jacky, for example, certainly have desires. Survival is one, and for Jacky, returning to his home, his country, is a major driving force.
One of the positive GoodReads writers said, and it reflects my response, that “importantly, Coleman’s more ‘extreme’ characters – such as Sister Bagra, in charge of a Native ‘orphanage’ – are frighteningly familiar, and it [is] these elements of the story that will linger.” She is not, in other words, a particularly complex character, but given what I know of colonial history, she is believable. I’d argue that that’s sufficient.
Then there were arguments that the book was too heavy-handed, too obvious, not nuanced enough. Again, there were GoodReads reviewers who agreed, one saying the “messaging was much too overt” and another that it could have been more subtle. However, I’m not sure that I’ve read much dystopian fiction that is subtle. On GoodReads I found a perfect example of how differently we “read” books. One criticised the chapter epigraphs, which come from various fictional “sources”, saying that “the book could have been done much more subtly without the chapter-starters explicitly comparing the colonisation to the colonisation of Australia”, while another said that Coleman’s “use of ‘archival documents’ at the beginning of each chapter gave the book rich perspective.” Again, I concur with the latter, and some in my group agreed that this feature of Coleman’s book was effective and worth exploring further.
It seems that those who are well-versed in speculative fiction’s colonisation stories – in my reading group and on GoodReads – felt that Coleman’s book didn’t offer anything new. A member in my group felt that it was so clearly Western Australia’s story that Coleman may as well have made it Western Australia. I agree that the “facts” aligned closely with the Western Australian experience, but I didn’t see that spoiling its speculative layer. In a way, it increased its effectiveness because, using the GoodReads quote above, it felt “frighteningly familiar”. There is an argument to be had, I suppose, about how “familiar” speculative fiction can be before it’s no longer speculative, but for me it worked.
Other concerns were raised in my group, but there were positives too, particularly regarding the quality of Coleman’s descriptive writing. She knows the landscape well and captures the heat and light, not to mention the weirdness of Australian desert vegetation beautifully:
He [Sergeant Rohan] did not relish another night under the alien trees, the twisted limbs, the hanging bark, the wrong colour: their waxy grey-green leaves too hard, almost glassy.
There’s more to like about the writing than this, however. From the first page when we meet Jacky on the run, I loved Coleman’s voice. It’s direct but evocative, it’s serious but peppered with a light, cheeky touch that uses throwaway lines and afterthoughts to great effect:
Dinner was a disappointment: sure the meat was fresh but it was tough and tasted like all the other Native meats – quite unappetising, only to be relished by the desperate. Good thing they were desperate then.
So, I was impressed by this book. My heart engaged with the characters who were struggling to survive their nightmarish world, while my mind was intrigued by what Coleman was doing, by her layering of historical experience within an imaginative framework, by her grounding us in a familiar story, and then overturning it to force us to see it from a different perspective. I’m not sure I followed all her intellectual twists and turns but I certainly got the point about invasion – and about the cruelty people inflict on each other in its name.
He [Johnny Star] had learned, through his friends, that the bent, broken drugged and drunk state of those surviving near the Settlements was not the habitual state of Natives. The truth was, it was a sort of depression brought on by what they had lost, brought on by being dominated and controlled by another people. Who could not be depressed, being treated like animals in a land that had once been theirs alone.
Without giving away the details, the ending is generally what you’d expect from a dystopian scenario, but it’s not without hope, without defiance too. A great read … at least, I thought so!
Note: I haven’t cited the individual GoodReads reviewers, but they can be found at the site’s page for the book.