I spent the first third of Claire Coleman’s debut novel, Terra Nullius, thinking that I had heard this story before. Reader, rarely have I been so wrong.
Terra Nullius is set in remote North Western Australia and is a tale of natives, settlers, and the conflict between them. All the familiar tropes are present. We meet Jacky, a young native man on the run from the station where he worked as a slave in all but name. We meet Sergeant Rohan, a trooper, charged with tracking Jacky down and bringing him to heel. We meet Esperance, a stoic young woman, who with her grandfather leads a camp of natives trying to keep one step ahead of the encroaching settler society. And we meet evil Sister Bagra, head of the missionary school where Jacky was raised. Sister Bagra hates Australia, her charges, and most of her fellow nuns. She has also, ominously, just been informed that an inspector from home is on his way to follow up on allegations that natives have been mistreated under Sister Bagra’s care.
Unsurprisingly, it was Sister Bagra who I, as a Christian, found it hardest to read about. The history of missionaries and their interactions with natives in colonial Australia is a chequered one, though from much present-day reportage you would be forgiven for thinking ‘chequered’ too kind a term. Sister Bagra, a woman driven by fastidious religious duty without love or pity, is a worthy successor to such villains as Jorge de Burgos, the blind fanatic from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The further the story advanced and the more I read of Bagra’s callous disregard for the children in her keeping, the harder it was to keep turning the pages. Just as I was seriously considering leaving the book unfinished, however, Coleman played her masterstroke, and I became so invested that I finished the rest of the book in a single day. I have not been able to stop thinking about it since.
from much present-day reportage you would be forgiven for thinking ‘chequered’ too kind a term.
Coleman’s prose is simple and clean: neither flowery nor cold. The action sequences are tight and energetic. Depth of characterisation is possibly one weakness, with some of the point-of-view characters being better developed than others. The two main heroes, however, Jacky and Esperance, are well rounded and deeply relatable. While clearly a work of political design, the message is embodied and flows naturally from the characters’ plights and does not overpower our investment in the story as a story.
Towards the end of the book I became worried once again: how on earth could this story end? Too many works of fiction have been spoiled for me by either unearned and unrealistic happily-ever-afters, or endings so bleak that I wonder why I bothered. Suffice it to say that Coleman has managed to negotiate her way between these pitfalls to my satisfaction. In fact, for a story made up of such harrowing subject matter, the book has a surprisingly generous and hopeful spirit. Not all the settlers are villains, not even all the religious ones; and even though the natives are outgunned, they are never unmanned.
Coleman, a Noongar woman whose ancestral country lies along the south coast of Western Australia, has written that her intention for the book was that it would lead readers “to have empathy for my people if they had not before.” While I would like to think that I was already empathetic, reading this book produced the kind of visceral reaction in me that is a distinguishing mark of the greatest fiction. Terra Nullius has been shortlisted for the Stella Prize for women’s writing and it is difficult for me to envisage a more worthy recipient.