Book Review: Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman
Today I’ll be reviewing the 2017 book Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman.
The author, Claire G. Coleman, is an Aboriginal Australian woman. More specifically, she’s a Noongar woman from Western Australia. She’s won a whole heap of awards, too. If you’d like to know more, her website is www.clairegcoleman.com .
Terra Nullius is the debut novel of Claire G. Coleman. The book is an adult speculative fiction novel set in a world that should be familiar to anyone who knows about Australia’s colonial history. To quote directly from the Wikipedia article, the book ‘draws from Australia’s colonial history, describing a society split into “Natives” and “Settlers.”’ It shows the harsh realities of the colonisation of a land several decades on from the beginning of the colonisation process.
The story is told from the points of view of seven different characters, all with unique backgrounds and viewpoints, which gives a good cross-section of opinions and worldviews of a mix of Native and Settler characters. To describe it in a way that won’t do it justice, here are just a few of the characters met in the opening chapters:
- a Settler nun who runs a mission for Native children who have been “relocated” from their homes and parents in order to “educate” them (in order for them to have a place in Settler society)
- a Native runaway slave (who was previously “educated” at said mission)
- the Settler government agent responsible for catching runaway slaves
- a Settler outlaw who is a charismatic, gun-toting, swaggering scoundrel
The events of the story kick into gear when Jacky, a Native slave, escapes and tries to find his way home to his parents, family, or wherever he was originally taken from (and that he can’t really remember because he was so young when he was taken). It’s basically an impossible mission, and he knows it, but he intends to try it anyway. He has to be careful not to leave tracks that the Settlers can follow (especially because the Settlers sometimes employ Native trackers who can read the tracks left on the ground), as well as avoid starvation and dehydration in the hot Australian climate.
This sets into motion a lot of other story threads, including the Settler government agent who has to mount up, deputise some citizens and try to track down the runaway Native. It’s a story that’s very easy to spoil details for, which is why I’m being very light on details here. In fact, this is a book best gone into without reading any reviews (ironic, I know, given this is a review you are reading) because the less you know about this book the more effective it will be in a first read-through.
Anyone familiar with the Australian environment will recognise it in these pages. The dryness, the oppressive heat, the unique flora and fauna (like paper-bark trees and kangaroos). Also, the impact on the land of introduced flora and fauna the Settlers brought over by ship (as someone who grew up in Queensland, let me just say I hate toads: they’re an introduced species and a destructive menace).
It also details, effectively I think, the bureaucracy of colonisation administration, and of how even those who aren’t die-hard buy-ins to the concept of colonisation still fall in line as part of the, well, cogs and machinery of government. And the struggles of the Settlers to live in a place so inhospitable and technologically primitive compared to the comforts and technological advancements of their original home. And of how it is for the Natives, to have their language, culture, religion, laws and customs, and even their manner of dress replaced by the imposition of Settler versions of those things.
The depiction of Native society is really well done and visceral. Some parts of the book I found difficult to read, not because they were badly written or anything like that, but because the attitudes of Settlers towards Natives in the book are shocking and I have zero doubt were the way my colonial ancestors actually spoke of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
The world-building here is subtle and incredibly effective, and Coleman trusts the reader to fill in gaps she’s left in the details. The book is speculative fiction, but if you’re a fan of world-building (i.e. a fantasy or sci-fi reader), then there’s something for you here, too (stick with it beyond the opening act and you’ll definitely see what I mean). Also, this is the only book I’ve read with quotes at the beginning of chapters that not only flavoured the world of the book but were key to understanding it.
The first draft of this book was amazing enough that Coleman was awarded the State Library of Queensland’s 2016 black&write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship. And then the book went on to win the Norma K Hemming Award. So, if this sounds like the type of book you might be interested in, don’t read any reviews or ask anyone else about it first, just get it now and read, read, read! (You’ll thank me later … well, thank Coleman for writing it, at least!)
Would I recommend this book? Yes. It’s an amazing book. I’ve recommended it only a few times so far, partly because it’s such a difficult book to describe without giving spoilers, but also because I’ve only just finished it … and because I wanted to avoid spoilers at all costs! (This is the type of book where spoilers can ruin your first read-through experience)
I recommend this book to anyone looking for any combination of the following elements:
- A speculative fiction book
- A standalone book (not part of a series)
- Book by an indigenous/first nations/black/Aboriginal author (I realise these aren’t always synonymous, but they are in this case)
- Book written by a woman
- Book written by an Australian
- Book set in Australia
- Book set in a colonial setting and actively engages with / explores the deeper implications of the setting
- Book for an adult audience
- Book that would be appropriate for an English / literature class
Also, the book has a custom dinkus! I love it when scene breaks have more than just a default dinkus.
In summary, this book was brilliant and is the perfect example of how effective speculative fiction can be. As an Australian, I’d be remiss if I didn’t strongly recommend it for how effectively it portrays the Australian landscape and draws upon Australian colonial history, in an unromanticised way.
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