In brief: The story of Australia across different time periods and through the eyes of different characters.
The good: Beautifully written with a love of the land.
The not-so-good: The future as painted in this book is way too realistic – and scary.
Why I chose it: Thank you to Harper Collins for the copy and introducing me to Catherine McKinnon’s writing.
Publisher: 4th Estate (Harper Collins)
Setting: New South Wales, Australia
Rating: 9 out of 10
When I first read about Storyland by Catherine McKinnon, my thoughts turned to a picture book I adored as a child – My Place by Nadia Wheatley. If you loved that book, Storyland is the grown up novel that takes an area of land around Lake Illawarra in New South Wales and tells the story of those who inhabit it, from Australia’s infant years to way into the future. It’s a clever story that sings the love of the land as the people are tied together through the ages via blood and objects. It also weaves into the narrative the history of Australia and imagines a future that is both scary and yet utterly plausible.
The novel opens in 1796 as young Will Martin goes on an expedition with Bass and Flinders to find a river south of Sydney Cove. The thriving metropolis we know today is but a basic town with the surrounds largely unexplored. The trio overshoot their mark and end up much further south, desperate for water. How will their interaction with the native people turn out? Each story segues seamlessly into the next going from oldest to present to future and then back again. In 1822, Hawker is a disgruntled employee looking after a corn crop in an isolated area. Combined with drink, anger and the need to improve his station, he commits an atrocity – but can it be explained away? In 1900, Lola and her siblings run a dairy farm. But when a young girl goes missing, tensions run high as neighbours accuse each other. Australia may have been settled for over a century at this point, but there is still a sense of wildness in the country. 1998 sees Bel and her friends meeting an older girl, Kristie while playing with a raft. Kristie is fun, but her partner Ned is violent. Finally, Nada must fight for survival in 2027 after everything she knows disappears.
The way the characters’ stories are combined in Storyland is magnificent. They flow into each other seamlessly, using a bird or other nature to signify that even though the people change, the land and animals remain. So many themes are raised too – from the European treatment of the Aboriginal people, the fear of foreigners (such as the Chinese), domestic violence and climate change. These are diverse topics, but they are combined skilfully into the plot and also reference real events form history. (I highly recommend reading the author’s note in full, as I found it really ignited my desire to know more). I found Nada’s story, which is set in a future that you could call dystopian, the most chilling. It involves a cyclone so huge that the south coast of New South Wales is a series of islands. That alone is scary enough (and plausible, given climate change and the recent floods further north). But it’s the reaction of the people that is the most unsettling. Given recent world events, it’s also far too conceivable that this could happen.
The portrayal of the Aboriginal people was also interesting, from Bass and Flinders’ point of view of distrust of the unknown to Hawker’s combination of hatred and lust. It made me ponder how far we have moved on from those sentiments. (If Bel’s experience with the public at the skeleton that was found is indicative – not very much for some).
I also enjoyed how little pieces of information from narratives before were woven into the story. There’s a suggestion of the characters being related, plus there are snippets of what became of them later in life. It was only a sentence or two, but I found myself looking out for references of what happened to Bel and the others. There is also a recurring object that appears across the centuries.
The writing in Storyland is beautiful and haunting. It gets under your skin as you ponder the themes and the future of our country. A must read to experience the history and land that makes up Australia.