Claire G. Coleman, Terra nullius (#BookReview)

Claire G Coleman, Terra nulliusClaire 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!

Lisa (Anzlitlovers) loved the book, as did Bill (The Australian Legend).

Note: I haven’t cited the individual GoodReads reviewers, but they can be found at the site’s page for the book.

AWW Badge 2018Claire G. Coleman
Terra nullius
Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2017
ISBN: 9780733638312

31 thoughts on “Claire G. Coleman, Terra nullius (#BookReview)

  1. Yes, I loved it! (thanks for the link). I think it’s a bit harsh of whoever said it’s too West Australian. Firstly Coleman is West Australian, a Wirlomin Noongar from the country she describes. And secondly, there isn’t that much fiction about the experience of the oppressed here (WA) or elsewhere in Aust.

    • Darn it. I replied from my iPad app and as sometimes happens it didn’t take. Thanks for this Bill. I should say that I don’t think the person would deny their right to tell their history – she’s very supportive of indigenous culture and indigenous people’s right to agency over their lives and culture. It’s just that she thought that by being so close to the WA story it wasn’t speculative.

  2. Gosh, I am surprised by your group’s response…the only one I think could be valid is that perhaps it doesn’t offer anything from a dystopian colonisation perspective – but since I haven’t read too many of those, I wouldn’t know. I can count the number of speculative fiction books I’ve read on one hand.
    But I think to focus on that is to miss the point: it’s the inversion of what we think we are reading to something else which is more profound.

  3. I don’t read anything dystopian but I enjoyed your conversation around this book. It’s always great fun to read a book in a book group and get a good discussion going about it. Sounds like there was plenty food for thought in this book.

    • Thanks OAM. I thought long and hard about writing this. Reading group was ten days ago and I usually write my review within a day or so of finishing this book. I didn’t want to offend anyone for a start, but I also wanted to tease out some ideas in a way that I felt unable to at the time. Not because I wasn’t given the opportunity but because there were so many ideas to get my head around.

  4. I confess I haven’t yet read the novel. I intend to, and your analysis makes it sound irresistible. You never cease to amaze me with the speed and volume of your reading, and the depth of your commentary. Many thanks. 🌺

  5. This is a very interesting post. I like how you incorporated the opinions of others into it. The fact that this book was set in a dystopian world that mirrors colonial Australia sounds different and creative. I tend to like such dystopian allegories.

  6. This was a 5 star read for me, so much so that i chose it for my bookclub and I’m happy to say they (generally) loved it too. I’m with Lisa – it’s how the book morphed in the middle that really grabbed me, and the writing, too, although two members of my boogroup thought the writing was a bit clumsy.

    • Thanks Sharkell for sharing your reading group’s response. Interesting point about the writing. It’s a very particular style and I can some people may not like it. Certainly some in my group liked the description but overall didn’t like the writing.

  7. I agree with your statement that a great strength of the book is that the author laid out a familiar story, then overturned it to force us to have a different perspective. Though I knew something was up, I didn’t guess what was coming. Perhaps my lack of experience with speculative fiction was a factor, but I found it a powerful book. The variety of storylines strengthened it for me.

    • Yes, same here Charlotte. It didn’t feel quite right at the beginning but I want write side what was going to happen. Like you I liked the different stories. None of them ad is sometimes the case was boring.

  8. I also loved it. that twist in the middle portion to show just how situations and reactions etc can change. There is a video artwork (OTTO) currently at Carriageworks in the sydney bienniale which I think evokes the landscape, heat desolation and sense of menace just perfectly

  9. Thanks for presenting your review in this way. I enjoyed reading the counterviews. The strength of the book for me was the way in which it positioned me as a white Australian reader. I liked the epigraphs for this. I struggled a bit in the second half where the story lagged, and I didn’t think the alien childhood point of view was illuminating, but these were minor issues. Your review has been an opportunity to reflect on my response and why it worked for me.

    • Thanks Agnes. I’m glad you liked my approach to this. I hope it would be useful and not offensive. I agree with you about the strength of the book … and love how you put it as the way it positioned you.

  10. I loved this one as well. I’m intrigued by the criticisms that it was too heavy-handed and too obvious. As far as I’m aware, there isn’t exactly a plethora of Aboriginal science fiction out there!

  11. Thanks for your review, Sue. The book annoyed me to some extent at first, but the switch in the middle I thought worked very well and for me the writing really took off from that point. I also think there is character development, in Jacky, Esperance and in Johnny Star. With regard to criticisms that it is Western Australian – well yes, for an Australian that is clear, but so what? The story is localised but is universal across Australia, and beyond I think. I would definitely recommend this book.

    • Thanks Ian – now I’m interested to know what annoyed you at the beginning!

      However, I’m glad you liked it after that. And I’m glad, like me, you don’t see an impediment in its being drawn from the WA experience. I would sad that the general or universal usually starts with the particular – and I could certainly see the universals about dispossession, othering, etc, in these particulars.

      • I think that I felt that the characters were stereotyped ciphers with no nuance. The baddies were very, very bad and the goodies very, very good. Of course this did not really change in the book, but turning the whole story upside down somehow made it work for me.

        • Thanks for clarifying that. I can understand that in a way. I had a bit of a talk to Son Gums and character development in works like this – sometimes I think stereotyping is part of the dystopian “feel” but I need to think about this more. I think what made the beginning alright for me was just the actual language – and, even more, the tone. A strong tone can often win me over.

  12. Pingback: Indigenous Literacy Day | looking up/looking down

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