Katelin Farnsworth reviews Our Shadows by Gail Jones
by Gail Jones
Reviewed by KATELIN FARNSWORTH
Our Shadows by Gail Jones is a family saga that examines the intimate lives of three generations living in Kalgoorlie. The story starts with Paddy Hannan, an Irish-born prospector who discovered gold back in 1893. Paddy’s history is woven in and out of the text and we travel back and forth between his story. We also meet sisters Nell and Frances, and grandparents, Fred and Else. The relationships drawn out in this novel are complex and layered, unfolding slowly as you read. There’s no doubt that Jones is a beautiful writer, precise, perceptive, and full of razor-sharp observations.
Aptly named, shadows imbue this novel. Nell and Frances were close as children however are alienated from one another in adulthood. After the death of their mother, they were raised by their grandparents in Kalgoorlie (the ‘shadow’ of the super pit) and are united by their love of reading. Estranged as adults and now living in Sydney, Nell and Frances both deal with different shadows. Frances is grief stricken, mourning her late husband, Will, while Nell deals with mental health issues. Their grandmother Else has dementia. The book slowly and lyrically unpacks and dissects their relationships together, the way they move and shift, closing and opening. The scenes with Else are touching, written almost like poetry, a true tenderness in the words.
‘Yes, it was Else, but in an altered state, not only with extreme age but with the air of subtraction and inwardness that a monk might possess. Her eyes were dim with medication. Her skull outline was clear beneath wisps of white hair. Yes, it was Else, who sat unaware and apart, with her long, notched fingers resting inert in her lap. Nell took her hand, but Else did not register her touch.’ (p115)
While Nell, Frances and Else are all living in Sydney, memories of Western Australian – consciously and subconsciously – sit under much of the work. As readers, we are drawn again and again to Kalgoorlie, this vivid place that is almost a character in its own right. There is also a lovely juxtaposition between the water of Sydney and the aridity of Kalgoorlie.
We meet Fred, Else’s late husband, through Nell and Frances. Fred was a worker in the mines and later a prisoner of the Japanese. Tragedy has filled his life, from haunting scenes in the mines to becoming a prisoner of war. Jones handles these themes delicately. While these tragedies undoubtedly change Fred, shaping his life, the way he understands himself and his future relationships, we see Nell and Frances remember him with courage, kindness, and strength:
‘Sometimes, on weekends, Fred took the girls prospecting. ‘Speccing’, he called it. In the desert beyond the town, littered with the remains of disused shafts and the mounds of old diggings, they set off together, peeling their eyes, scouring the dirt, searching fastidiously for something golden.’ (p200)
Mining infuses Our Shadows in multiple ways. Fred attempts to bury the horrors of war through the mines; for Nell and Frances, the mines represent their childhood stories, loss and grief. The unknown, the unseen and the unspoken all play out in this novel. Silence (and the silencing of Aboriginal Country and culture), looms large, even if not at the forefront of the story. This silence is imprecise, as silence often is, because the bulk of the book follows characters who are not Aboriginal and who benefit from systemic privilege.
Paddy Hannan, the Irish miner, who made his way to Kalgoorlie and found gold in 1893, slowly begins to understand the mines differently. The mines represent intense greed, a place where white people continuously take with little thought or regard to the violence they are enacting. The land is given no respect and the rightful Aboriginal owners are ignored and cast into shadow. Wangkathaa land is devastated by greed and destruction. Jones examines this toxicity with a subtle hand, exploring some of these damages and abuses, as well as the consequences (or no consequences, as it may be). An intense silence exists in Australia’s national identity, one rarely confronted or engaged with. Jones uses Our Shadows to show us that colonisation continues to exist – a shadow, or shape if you will, that isn’t simply going to go away. In a book already filled with deep shadows, this shadow of colonisation may, however, be the most important one. It sits underneath everything, every character and every action, even if not always immediately recognised. Colonisation has had a devastating impact on this land: it should not be ignored and Jones does not ignore it, bringing it into the story and asking the reader to consider its effects.
In the second part of Our Shadows Frances returns to Kalgoorlie in search for more answers about her father. While there, she meets Val. Val is a compassionate and generous Wiluna woman who shares her knowledge with Frances about Aboriginal languages and customs. Aboriginal history is largely ignored by white people, and so these scenes are significant. Although fleeting, these encounters are important not only for Frances, but for the white reader too, serving as a reminder that the land is not theirs to claim, never has been and never will be: it does not belong to them. The friendship between Frances and Val may be complex but it is also essential. Sections with Val are brief, something I think worth mentioning, perhaps highlighting the fact that this is not Jones’ story to tell but still deserves space and time on the page.
While line by line Jones is a joy to read, at times I was uncertain about how all the pieces came together. With a fragmentary narrative, there were occasions where I drifted off while reading and had to consciously bring myself back to the story. This is a prominent feature of Jones’ writing – her style often travels between the past and the present, cleverly using gaps, stillness and silence to make a point or convey a message. With a history of striking narrative techniques, there is an elusive and indefinable quality to much of Jones’ work. Often experimental, patterns and repetitions abound in her work. In Our Shadows, we see this play out through the use of Japanese artist Hokusai’s art piece The Great Wave. As children, this piece plays an integral role in connecting Nell and Frances to one another, as well as heightening their desire and longing for the ocean. Consequently, a wave-like, almost dreamy quality to the story exists, an ebb and flow, a swelling and a surging.
Shadows of our pasts are tricky things, weaving in and out of lives often without our knowledge. Coloniality and settler guilt is a recurring theme in Jones’ work and there is a sense of collective loss in the national story. A nation built on invasion, lies and genocide means that everything becomes unstable in a broader sense. We see this instability again and again in Jones’ characters. Paddy, Frances, Nell, Fred, and Else all grapple with various ghosts and with different ideas around loss, silence and memory. Detachment is another strong theme. Perhaps, there is an intentionality to the text, a ‘holding back’ from the author that is designed to mirror something in the characters and bring something – invoke some kind of new feeling – in the reader. Either way, Jones’ writing is nuanced and she writes about memory thoughtfully. The following passage from Frances, thinking about her late husband, speaks to this idea beautifully:
‘Not all recollections of Will took their toll; some returned her to their body part, and the things they had said to each other. To their shared personal life and their history of seeing and knowing. It was still an enigma to Frances why the past was so difficult to manage. She hoped that eventually her feelings would detach or simplify…’ (p197).
What does it mean then, for feelings, to disappear? Can lives at once be meaningful and meaningless? This book questions us to consider the shadows of our past, our future shadows, the enigmas that have not yet happened, and the shadows we will leave behind. People are multidimensional and ‘Our Shadows’ shows us some of these dimensions, asking its reader to dissect, think and explore these characters and the shifts in time.
Our Shadows is a complicated book, with a lot to consider. It is one I will continue to revisit, thinking about greed and silence – the shadows that permeate this country, the echoes left behind, and the way I understand myself, the world I live in, and the deep scars that fill this land we call ‘Australia’.
KATELIN FARNSWORTH is a writer and reader living on unceded Wurundjeri land. She loves imagining stories and spending time in nature. She was shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize in 2020 and won an ASA Mentorship in 2021.