If there was one book I was really looking forward to in 2012 it was Kim Scott's That Deadman Dance, which had been published in Australia to critical acclaim in 2010. Prior to its long-awaited publication in the UK last October, it had gone on to win almost every award going in the antipodes, including the 2011 Regional Commonwealth Writers' Prize, the 2011 Miles Franklin Literary Award and the 2011 Australian Literary Society Gold Medal.
But perhaps that weight of expectation proved too heavy for me, because I found myself struggling to enjoy this book, even though I very much appreciated Scott’s “message” and his thoughtful, often beautiful prose.
First contact between black and white
The story, which is set on the south-west coast of Western Australia in the mid-19th century, charts the colonisation of the land by white settlers and the impact of their arrival on the native inhabitants, the aboriginal Noongar people.
Scott, who is a descendant of the Noongar, is more than authorised to tell this tale, which shows how an initial spirit of co-operation between the two groups sadly erodes over time.
The Europeans, once outnumbered by their aboriginal counterparts, become dominant and all-powerful as the settlement takes shape and new buildings, new roads and new systems of governance are put into place. As the population grows and more people arrive from the motherland, the Noongar are no longer viewed as equals but as a threat — in all kinds of ways.
By comparison, the Noongar, a resourceful and welcoming people who had initially embraced their new visitors and their strange ways, find that the land which had sustained them for thousands of years has now been parcelled off into farms for crop and meat production and they are no longer free to roam it. Their incomprehension is only matched by the white settler’s fury when sheep and other food is stolen from them.
This almost imperceptible shift in power is what makes this book so fascinating, because at what point did it go wrong? What would modern Australia be like if black and white relations had not broken down in this terrible way?
The book is structured in an unusual way — and I think this is probably why I struggled to enjoy it. It is divided into four parts, which are not arranged in chronological order — for instance, we start in 1835, before going back to 1826-1830, then we move forward to1836-1838 before jumping forward again to 1841-1844.
There’s not much of a plot either (except, of course, the breakdown in black and white relations) and there’s not really a main character with which the reader can identify. While much of the narrative revolves around Bobby Wabalanginy, a young aborigine, who has a remarkable gift for mimicry and learning new languages, Scott provides a range of perspectives, so we get to see things through the eyes of a vast array of characters, including Dr Cross, Bobby's uncle Mendak, the Chaine family from Britain and former soldier Alexander Killam.
It is this constant jumping around (many of the chapters are very short) from person to person and from one time frame to another, that complicates the narrative. And despite this almost schizophrenic approach, I did occasionally find that the storyline lagged.
Portrait of Australia's past
Of course, it's not a bad novel and I'd urge anyone who is interested in Australia's early history and its landscape to give it a try. Scott's prose is wonderfully evocative, particularly of the bush and the ocean, and his descriptions of the whaling ships and the whaling industry — which becomes such a dominant force along this part of the coast — is rich and eloquent.
The strength of the story lies mainly in its examination of how the values of the colonisers were at odds with that of the Noongar — a dilemma that remains unreconciled to this day. But Scott does this in such a gentle, nuanced way that the full force of his detailed portrait of white arrogance and ignorance, coupled with black incomprehension and despair, doesn't fully hit you until you come right to the end of the novel.
I came away from the last page feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness, best summed up in this quote (from page 109):
We thought making friends was the best thing, and never knew that when we took your flour and sugar and tea and blankets that we'd lose everything of ours. We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn't want ours...
A note of warning: the blurb on my edition suggests this novel is a romantic tale between an aboriginal man and a white woman, but that paints a false premise. While there is a short romance between Bobby and Chaine's daughter, this is not the central focus of the novel.