Cover of book: Enclave

Claire G. Coleman

John Clare was the great poet of “enclosure”. Unlike other major Romantic writers, he was of the peasantry – he lived through a period during which lands once held for the benefit of all were privatised in the name of “improving” agricultural productivity. Such commons were fenced off and patrolled against encroachment:

There once were lanes in nature’s freedom dropt,

There once were paths that every valley wound –

Inclosure came, and every path was stopt;

Each tyrant fix’d his sign where paths were found,

To hint a trespass now who cross’d the ground…

Enclosure resulted in the criminalisation of poverty. The gleaning of fields, the snaring of game or fishing in the wrong place became poaching. Many were convicted of these pursuits and transported for their crimes. Others were forced to migrate to various overseas colonies. Bleak irony attaches to the knowledge that these people, once landed in Australia, assisted in the annexation of a new region. They helped to enclose a continent.

Claire G. Coleman’s third novel is set in an Australia ravaged by climate disruption; it is as far from Clare’s Northamptonshire as you can get. What the author has done, however, is to project the old project of enclosure into the future.

This is a country in which border walls have reached monstrous proportions and where surveillance technology and AI protect the descendants of the original European interlopers from the worst excesses of changing climate and the potential contamination of the polity by those who are different.

It’s apartheid by algorithm – a drone-enabled dystopia. And it is into one of these enclaves that our heroine, Christine, is born and raised. It is her gradual realisation of the true nature of this society after she is expelled – her crime, kissing one of her servants, a beautiful Aboriginal woman from the brown and black-skinned Helot class bussed in to the enclave each day – that drives the novel on.

Coleman pulls no punches in describing this future. The imaginative underpinnings of her vision are bold and confronting. She deserves great credit for standing up on behalf of Australia’s disinherited peoples.

Sadly, the prose in which the story unfolds – filled with awkward similes, repetitions and an absence of the psychological interiority required to render characters in more than two dimensions – works against Enclave realising its full potential. If only the language and form were as brilliant as the ideas that animate it. 

Hachette, 320pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2022 as "Enclave, Claire G. Coleman".

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Geordie Williamson is a writer and critic.

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