Books

Gail Jones
Our Shadows

In the winter of 1893, the Irish prospector Paddy Hannan and two compatriots noted the presence of gold in the place that would become known as Kalgoorlie. The diggings were soon swarmed, and a bustling mining town grew up in the years that followed, the magnetic pull of precious metal overcoming the remoteness of the Western Australian site, the aridity of its climate, the inherent dangers of the work.

The town now sports an open-cut mine half a kilometre deep and three-and-a-half kilometres wide. Each day, explosive blasts bite deeper into the earth. More than a century of mining has left Kalgoorlie a place where absence is more notable than presence: literally so, since you can see its “super pit” from space. Call it a synecdoche for the appetite and power of Australia’s extractive industries, as well as the damage they have wrought.

That a nation whose wealth is founded on mining should have such slender representation of the subject in its literature has always been a mystery. Yet Gail Jones’s eighth novel, which explores the history of Kalgoorlie through the experiences of three generations of a mining family in the town, turns out to be neither a dutiful chronicle of progress nor a protest speech in fictional drag.

It is instead a narrative poised between celebration and condemnation, exploring the space between individual experience and broader societal forces – between fixed historical record and a future still in formation. It is a story that balances, delicately but with intense concentration and craft, the symbolic potency of mining with an account of ordinary lives shaped by daily intimacy with the industry. Even the book’s style swings between realism and the purer abstractions of poetry.

Although the story begins in 19th-century County Clare – where a young Paddy Hannan, inspired by the discovery of a hoard of Bronze Age relics by local men and wounded by childhood memories of the Irish famine, lights out for the Victorian goldfields – the chronological centre of the novel lies in Sydney in the near present.

Frances and Nell are sisters and escapees from a Kalgoorlie childhood, now living in the harbour city as close to the ocean as their modest incomes allow. Their ’70s childhood was an unhappy one – Mary, their mother, died in childbirth; their father, Jack, vanished soon afterwards, never to be seen again.

The pair were raised by grandparents who were loving yet distracted by grief for their daughter. Nell grew up wild and wanton; Frances, biddable but frightened, clutched at her cardigan sleeves. Neither managed to bend themselves into the required shape.

The sisters cleaved to each other growing up. The isolation of their orphaned situation, the masculine slant of the town, the inhospitable nature of the place: all of it combined to ensure that, in Frances’s thinking, they were obliged to grow “in their own frontier”.

This was a place of psychological respite from an “arid desert, warped in glare”. It was an aqueous fantasy of escape for the girls, fed by tails of underwater exploration à la Jules Verne, imagined ocean breezes and waves of deep Hokusai blue, inspired by a poster of the Japanese print fixed to the girls’ bedroom wall.

Their getaway to the real coast is eventually achieved, but not without cost. Frances, now in her 40s, has recently buried her young husband, Will – another child of miners, he contracted mesothelioma from a childhood spent playing around dumped asbestos – and distracted by mourning she has drifted from intimacy with Nell.

Jones is very good at grief. She knows how it can destabilise the ground beneath a character’s feet, how trapped and volatile emissions may seep from the rent. Following a second death in the family, Frances determines that only a return to Kalgoorlie will definitively tamp down her difficult, restive past.

The author presses this small, sad domestic story thin between layers of prehistory – such as the life of Nell and Frances’s grandfather, Fred Kelly. For decades an explosives specialist in Kalgoorlie’s mines, this sober, kind, decent man ends up on the Burma railway during World War II, then in coalmines in Japan. His own father died of silicosis in the mines before him. The future is inscribed upon his lungs, as well. That a man of such resolute ordinariness should suffer so from history seems cruelly unwarranted.

Jones shunts the story forwards and backwards adroitly, explores the lives of women at home as insightfully as the men underground, and summons Frances to the expected reckoning with her origins. But what is unexpected is the love letter the grieving woman is inspired to pen to the town she fled all those years before – to that sunburnt patch, gouged down to the bones of the earth.

This is in part due to an encounter with a Mandildjara woman, Val, who furnishes Frances with a warm, sincere link with the mother she and Nell never knew. For Frances, time with Val is also an education in dwelling properly in place, rather than squeezing every square metre so that it renders up its tribute to economic growth.

None of this is presented with the stridency it surely deserves. Jones is an artist, and a deeply intelligent one at that; she proceeds by paradox and supple indirection. So it is that the final pages of the novel – a conclusion both startling and as genuinely moving as any I’ve read in recent Australian literature – lifts away from Frances’s own sadness to accommodate something much larger, grander: not a message of hope so much as a rush of acceptance: “Instead of passivity and incoherence, there was the dawning of a frail, provisional faith. There was a gathering here and a lacing of the bare strands of her knowing.”

That knowing assumes the form of a counter-myth, written to show how Paddy Hannan and all who followed him were men damaged by a false promise, even as their shared sacrifice and the fatal stigmata of their occupation ennobled them. It is a scorching critique of our greed and rapacity, though one gracious enough to acknowledge a trap as deep as the Kalgoorlie super pit, and as old as white presence on land that was never theirs to hurt.

Geordie Williamson

Text, 320pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 24, 2020 as "Gail Jones, Our Shadows".

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Reviewer: Geordie Williamson