Fiction - paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 296 pages; 1996.
Long before Chloe Hooper wrote her extraordinary non-fiction book The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island (2010), Australian novelist Thea Astley penned The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow (1996), also set on Palm Island and based on a similar violent incident.
A fictionalised account of a true story
Palm Island, off the coast of Far North Queensland, was set up by the State Government in 1916 as a place to house aboriginals as a kind of punitive mission. In 1930, the white superintendent, grieving over the death of his wife in childbirth, went on a drink-and-drug-fuelled rampage and set fire to many of the buildings. He used dynamite to blow up his own home, killing his two children inside, and after fleeing the island temporarily, was gunned down upon his return. (You can read more about him and the incident in his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.)
For the purposes of this novelisation, Astley changes the name of the island to Doebin and invents a cast of characters who were present at the time. The book uses multiple voices in self-contained chapters to tell the story of events leading up to the fateful rampage and its aftermath. Most of the voices are third person, but the opening — and very engaging — first chapter is told in the first person.
All of the characters are white, except for Manny Cooktown, an aboriginal man, whose story is told in brief excerpts — written in dialect — between each chapter.
Everything is not as it seems
The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow is a wonderful metaphor for race relations in Australia, specifically between 1918 and 1957, although it could also be argued that it remains relevant today.
In its depiction of violence in the tropics, it also reveals that appearances can be deceptive. The island may look like paradise, the superintendent may seem fair-minded, the priest well-meaning, the doctor caring, aboriginals subservient, but there's more going on beneath the surface than meets the eye. Here's how Mrs Curthoys, a fine upstanding woman who arrives on the island to run the boarding house, describes Doebin:
If you happened upon this island, sails bellied and straining to a landfall, as you balanced on deck with your eyes gummed to this mountain humped above riffled reef waters, you would be enchanted by that necklace of white beaches, foliage growing almost to the sea in a density of plaited vine, aerial roots, leathery green leaves and palms waving casual welcome feathers. Now and again, as the boat rocked, an enchanting white-wall glimpse, the glare of a roof, the spurious domesticity of a cooking fire. God love us, you might say as Father Donellan said that morning of our one and only Mass, what a paradise of a place!
But then she later goes on to describe it as "a rubbish tip for government guilt" filled with aboriginal men white society doesn't know how to deal with, pregnant women, unmarried mothers, runaways, alcoholics and the old.
Lessons of the past
Astley throws light on a subject many would rather forget and the book's power comes from the realisation that history has a habit of repeating.
And as much as I was gripped by the characters, most of whom are deeply flawed and full of their own self-importance, and the exploration of Australian society, both before and after the Second World War, the structure of the novel didn't work for me. It felt too disjointed and, as ever when there are multiple voices, I tended to favour particular characters over others.
But there's no doubt that Astley can write. Her sentences are often breathtaking — and that's not just because they are occasionally very long — while her insights into the human heart are hugely perceptive.
The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow won The Age Book of the Year in 1996 and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1997. Sadly, it appears to be out of print in the UK, although you can order second-hand copies via online book sellers. My thanks to Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers for providing the generous gift voucher last Christmas which allowed me to buy this handsome Penguin Modern Classics edition direct from Australia.