This novel consists of five interlocking narratives: four set in the past, the fifth set in the future.
The narrative opens in 1796, with Will Martin, a young cabin boy, accompanying Matthew Flinders and George Bass as they travel south from Sydney Cove to the Illawarra in the tiny Tom Thumb. It’s an exploratory journey, which gets off to an inauspicious start when their drinking water is spoiled. The need to find fresh water drives them ashore. The second time they venture ashore, they meet two Indigenous men. But goodwill evaporates and the Europeans retreat.
And then the story moves to 1822, from Will Martin to Hawker. Hawker is a convict assigned to tilling fields, desperate to be somewhere else, brutal, opportunistic and self-serving. I recognise the land, from the description in Will Martin’s story. Europeans are settling it; Indigenous people are being dispossessed. I don’t want to dwell on Hawker’s story and am happy when the narrative moves on.
In 1900, Lola McBride, her brother Abe and sister Mary run a dairy farm on the Illawarra. They come under suspicion when a girl goes missing. There’s more than one tragedy about to play out here.
‘One group names the town for the land that is strong and solid behind it, the other names it for the water that lies before it or above it.’
In 1998, we meet Bel and her friends. This is multicultural Australia, a diversity of opinion and acceptance providing a stark contrast to 1822 and 1900. But there’s violence as well, and connections to the past. Reminders of people who came before.
‘The earth is a body breathing.’
Jump forward to the future, where in 2033 Nada’s world starts to fall apart. This is cleverly done, uncomfortable to read, and has its own links to the past. Items are found, items which readers will remember from earlier stories, items now entirely separate from earlier connections. The focus in Nada’s story is on survival, in a land which has changed.
So, what does the future hold? How has the past and the environment shaped us? How do we fit into the present? I found this an enjoyable (mostly) and challenging novel to read. I admired the way in which Ms McKinnon deftly used a sentence (involving the flight of birds) to shift from one character to the next. This continuity in the natural environment both frames and connects the individual stories.
This is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking novels I have read.