Monday 16 November 2020

Our Shadows | Gail Jones #AUSfiction

One gets to a time and place when one HAS to be done thinking about a book and what review to write for it. I have reached this point with Our Shadows by Gail Jones. 

I have done everything I can to put together some coherent, clever thoughts, from attending two zoom author talks with Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane and a week later with Gleebooks in Sydney, to reading other reviews and talking about the book with a friend who abandoned it half way through.

I really enjoyed Jones' previous book, The Death of Noah Glass, although it was not easy. So I felt prepared for Jones' themes of loss and grief wrapped in layers of art and ideas. However, I never really felt fully engaged with her characters or her purpose. Noah Glass got under my skin, but sisters Nell and Frances failed to become fully-fleshed characters in my mind.

About a third of the way through, I decided to engage with the book in a different way to help me get through (it was around this point my friend abandoned ship). I had noticed the number of times the word 'shadow' was being used by Jones, so I decided to list them.
  • mud and shadow make him appear older.
  • Let us say he is a man perpetually shadowed. He will always be in shadow.
  • Frances began to accept that she lived in Nell's shadow
  • their shadows were huge on the tunnel wall, they were monsters, not men
  • dying in their shadows
  • When Paddy saw their shadows walking alongside them, they were conglomerate creatures, lumpish and inhuman
  • he felt himself splotched in shadow.
  • ill-fated and shadowed.
  • his lungs have been checked. No shadows.
  • it was the shadow of wings passing over her
  • the women trudged back, pulling their long shadows
  • He was all shadows
  • the story that hung shadowy

In discussion with Krissy Kneen (Avid Reader) and then with Bernadette Brennan (Gleebooks) I learnt that Jones set up the novel with a specific spatial logic whereby the scenes shadowed each other. The modern story of the sisters being followed by a chapter about their grandparent's history in a process described by Jones as the 'layers of life in your childhood that you spend the rest of your life excavating'.

The loss of the girls' parents also highlighted the shadow between generations. This family had an aching, missing step between grandparents and grandchildren, that caused a discontinuity in history and memory. Jones described it as 'looking forwards as memory leads us back'.

She used the mining processes of Kalgoorlie, WA to explore themes of darkness, what lies underground and beneath the surface. Through mining she explored different levels of knowing and interiority (a word she used several times to describe her writing).

Jones is also interested in scale and how a smaller, intimate story fits within the bigger narrative of history. In this story we glimpse the Irish potato famine, the gold rush/early settler life in Australia, the mining industry in WA and an Indigenous perspective. 

The importance and use of language is another device that Jones plays with here. The importance of naming things and naming them correctly, the act of translation and language making and what it means when we lose language through cultural appropriation or dementia. When the absence of language becomes like a shadowy presence, leaving a space or void waiting to be filled, yet full of expectation, anticipation, memory and loss. It's something that feels very close, within reach, yet impossibly far away, unable to be grasped. Which is probably a pretty good description of my reading experience!

I learnt that Australian POW's (& British, Dutch, US, Czech & Norwegian) were in Nagasaki (or nearby at least in Omuta) at the Fukuoka #17 Branch POW Camp (and other camps) when Nagasaki was bombed at the end of WWII. How had I never heard about this before? Most of the British, Dutch and Australian POW's were also survivors of the Burma railway.

I was moved by Fred's description of the pipeline and the country around Kalgoorlie:
He was surprised to realise how much he loved this landscape - the gimlets and casuarinas, the sweeping hawks and the streaking crows, the high shine of the cloudless, metallic sky. he loved the stiff grasses and the saltbush and the tiny tough flowers. The wind moving through them, and the scent of the red earth, baking. Alongside, the white pipeline stretched all the way from Perth. He loved it too. Water in the desert. And the story of how the pipeline was built.

Image source

And, for the first time I heard about the Lake Ballard statues, 'Inside Australia', by Antony Gormley. I first came across Gormley's work when it was referenced by Heather Rose in The Museum of Modern Love. So I was prepared for the eerie, startling nature of his statues, I just had no idea we had some in Australia.
They climbed a neat hill that reminded Frances of the cover of  The Little Prince, a hemisphere, like half a planet, in the middle of nowhere. From the top they stood in the salty wind and looked afar. Before them, beneath the white glaze of the sunlight, lay asterisk on asterisk of fanning trails, the footprinted patterns of earlier visitors who had tracked between the statues.
Image: Merlyn Cantwell

I'm not sure I can say that I enjoyed this novel, although I didn't dislike it either. Maybe the use of so many absences and shadows was a device to leave us feeling empty and unfulfilled on purpose.

It is now a month since I read Our Shadows, and very little has stayed with me about the story. I enjoyed researching things like the POW's in Nagasaki and looking at all the images available on Instagram for Gormley's statues, but I did not engage at an emotional level with the characters. I love a good intellectual exercise, but sometimes the storytelling can get overwhelmed in the process. Judging by the experience of the two readers I have to hand right now, I fear that is what has happened here. 


Strange how things in the offing, once they're sensed,
Convert to things foreknown;
And how what's come upon is manifest

Only in light of what has been gone through.

Seamus Heaney
(Squarings xlviii)

Opening Line (in an untitled prologue): 
  • So who is this girl, dreaming awake, of an entombed miner?


  1. Appreciate the effort you took to analyze the strong points of Ms Jones's writing...even after a month of reading the book.
    "You're a better man than I am Gunga Din!" I am not able to face the danger on this literary battlefield! I read 1 book by Ms Jones Guide to Berlin. Well, I've been to Berlin and did not recognize it in her book! No more GJ's books for me.

    1. I understand completely. I'm still keen to read her earlier book, Five Bells, which a good friend loved. And I have fond memories of my time with Noah Glass, but...


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