Staff review by Chris Saliba
Claire G. Coleman's debut novel is a powerful re-imagining of Australia's violent and oppressive past.
Jacky, a male youth, is on the run. He’s on the run from the Troopers, part of the colonial police force, well known for their human rights abuses. Jacky has been working as a virtual slave at Sister Bagra’s religious mission. A mean woman who despises the Natives – she thinks them vile savages – Jacky has run away and is now trying to find his true home. Sergeant Rohan, a violent and amoral man, is leading the chase.
Not all of the colonial masters, invaders, despise the Natives as lesser beings. A Trooper, Johnny Star, has absconded after being made to participate in a vile massacre. He is on the run from the colonial authorities.
A young woman, Esperance, is leading a group of Natives out into the desert. Their hope is to create a new beginning for themselves, out of the reach of the invaders. The invaders hate dry places, indeed can’t survive there, and so dry, remote places are their best chance.
This is a familiar Australian colonial narrative – invasion, brutality, dominance. Or so you would think. Half way through the novel, however, the reader learns that we are not reading about events that have happened in the past. The colonisers of the story are not the British. The year is actually 2041 and something quite unthinkable has happened to Australia.
By any measure, Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius is mind blowing. By projecting Australia past into a speculative future narrative, Coleman holds an inescapable mirror up to the nation. She makes us confront the horrors of dispossession and genocide. The great achievement of the book is its empathetic power. The reader really feels the terror and desperation of being an occupied people, considered sub human. Setting the story in the future, with Australian society turned upside down, explodes preconceived ideas about how to approach our colonial past and highlights that for many, the past is nowhere near over.
Terra Nullius, by Claire G. Coleman. Published by Hachette. ISBN: 9780733638312 RRP: $29.99
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