Margaret Merrilees’ debut novel, The First Week, had something of the complexity which I was looking for in Snake. It deals with the question of what Europeans have done to the land since settlement, and contemplates what we are to do with that legacy.
It opens with the widowed protagonist, Marian, wandering about the farm in Western Australia that she and her husband have worked. She stops at its border. The land on the other side has been returned to Noongars, but it’s poor quality, the soil having been eroded. Due to clearing, there also aren’t enough trees and shrubs to absorb the rising table water below the surface, which means that the water is bringing salt (which naturally occurs in the soil) with it. The salt makes it hard for vegetation to grow, and so the cycle continues. The implication is that, once Europeans have used up, the land, it’s given back to the original custodians, because the Europeans have no use for it any more. They might see it as trash, but Aboriginal people know that it never is.
Marian’s suspicion of Noongars, and her contemplation of how they could possibly use the land given that it’s so worn out, is soon thrust into sharp relief by a crime committed by her son. She goes to Perth to visit him, and becomes acquainted with his next-door-neighbour, an Aboriginal woman, Lee, whose family had to live on the reserve in the town near her farm.
What I liked most about this work was the convincing depiction of Marian’s bewildered encounters with the city and its terrifying freeways and trains, her son’s friends and their ideas, and with Lee, with whom her engagement can only occur because she’s desperate to understand her son and his crime. Much of the beginning takes place while she’s in a state of shock and confusion, and this state splits her open and forces us to rethink her approach to things as she puts herself back together. However, it also makes her vulnerable, and the reader cares about what happens to her on account of this.
As Marian’s week progresses, she gets to know Lee better. Shut up and listen, Lee tells her (150), and eventually Marian does, and reconsiders her attitudes. By the end of the novel, she’s (metaphorically) back at the fence, trying to work out what to do with her farm and that border between her and her Noongar neighbours. I found it interesting that the choices she mulled over mirrored those taken by my protagonist in Entitlement.
Salt bubbles up frequently in the work, a reminder that the bad history never stays underground, but wells up, poisonous, and needs to be treated. One of the most striking references to it comes when Marian recalls a holiday by the river at her mother’s with her sons. She jumps into the water ‘and laughed with the sheer pleasure of it and duck-dived. But something was wrong. The taste of the water on her lips was wrong. The water was brackish, where no salt should be … This was a river. [Her boys] saw nothing wrong, would never know that a river should smell of reeds and mud and fresh sweet water. They were the salt generation’ (135). The metaphor is poignant because the salt water didn’t cause problems until deforestation by Europeans, and younger generations are the ones that must deal with this legacy. Although on an ecological level, this problem is a global one, not just confined to Australia.
I found out about this book through a post by Sue of Whispering Gums about an essay Merrilees had penned on white people writing Aboriginal characters. Merrillees rightly points out, as I indicated in my review of Snake, that one cannot refer to Australia without including an Indigenous consciousness. How to do this, however, is contested. She notes that there’s ‘never going to be a unified Aboriginal view, any more that there is a unified white view. There is no such entity as “the Aboriginal people” to provide answers.
The best thing we can do, she suggests, is to take her character Lee’s advice and ‘Shut up and listen.’ On that note, you can also listen to Melissa Lucashenko’s talk on representations of Indigenous people in her 2013 Colin Simpson Memorial Lecture, while Anita Heiss answered some interview questions for the Wheeler Centre on a workshop she gave on this topic, now available on her website.
The politics of writing Indigenous characters and voices is something I think about repeatedly, even having written a book which does so. I suspect my approach was flawed – the more I read Indigenous literature and about Indigenous people the more I question some of the decisions I made – but I think Sue is on the money when she says writes, ‘Genuine, thoughtful trial-and-error seems to be the way to go. Listen, give it a go, and listen again.’
Book details: Merrilees, Margaret. The First Week. Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 2013.
Borrowed as an eBook from Brisbane City Council Library.
This is my 9th review for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.