Nikki Gemmell (1966- ) is an author I really admire. If I had more time (and energy) I would have made her my feature author for a year as I did with David Ireland a couple of years ago. I have written about her previously so if you want to know more start with my review of After (2017), Gemmell’s memoir of dealing with the death of her mother by her own hand, pre-Assisted Dying laws.
An author I admire, but the rest of the world, not so much. She gets “International Bestselling Author” for The Bride Stripped Bare (2003) but where’s the hype for this, her first novel in eight years, or for that matter, for After, which was a really powerful work, but which attracted just one commenter, as did my previous Gemmell review (thank you, respectively, Sue and Lisa).
I picked up The Ripping Tree as an MP3 CD at my latest library, which means I listened to it a week ago, took no notes and there is almost no textual material online to provide me with reminders.
First up, it’s Historical Fiction. How do I deal with that? It’s not a re-telling of an historical event, but rather an imagined story set in maybe the 1840s on an island or coastal community on the east coast of Australia. I read it as a sermon using an alternative reality to posit a world where a powerless young woman, bereft of everything, down to her own clothing, nevertheless stood up to power both for herself and for the local Aborigines whom the settlers were massacring.
Australian history must be re-written to include the Indigenous massacres, oppression and deaths in custody which from 1788 till today, and no doubt well into the future, enable us to live on this land. Gemmell no doubt is an advocate of this re-writing. But I think that by doing it through Historical Fiction she runs into the old #NotAllMen problem, or in this case #NotAllWhites.
No doubt there were ‘good’ Germans, and there are ‘good’ men, but the Germans have shown that the way forward for them is to accept responsibility for the Holocaust; the South Africans that Truth precedes Reconciliation; women are asking all men to acknowledge their privilege; I am saying ALL non-Indigenous Australians must acknowledge that our prosperity derives from theft and murder. The problem with this book is that it will leave readers with the option of saying ‘well, we weren’t all bad’ when the truth is that right up to today we either participated or looked the other way.
[Does the sensible thing, rings the library, goes and picks up a paper copy].
The novel is framed as a story told by a grandmother to her grandchildren who have been up the coast to visit the ‘stately home’ Willowbrae. “The turrets, the crenellations, the magnificent library, the avenue of elms, the circular flower beds”. But that is just two or three pages, of no consequence.
The novel otherwise, is divided into seven consecutive days and the days into chapters of just a few pages. On day one Thomasina Trelora, 16 years old, from Knockleby, Dorset wakes to find herself in a strange bed, in a girl’s bedroom.
Her father has died. Her half brother has sold the estate to pay his own debts and has brought Thomasina to his home in Australia where she is to marry a clergyman sight unseen. But their ship has missed the harbour entrance in a storm, has smashed on the rocks, and she, the only survivor has washed up onshore, barely conscious, has been rescued by an Aboriginal man
Black. I took the hand in mine and turned it over, held the rescuing fingers close. The hand was darker at the knuckles and ghostly pale underneath, as if the sun had never reached into it, or use had rubbed it light, and there was a paleness under the nails and near them and, no, actually, the skin wasn’t uniformly black at all: the fingernails were yellowed and ridged and strongly thick as if from something else. The ocean perhaps, shells or sea creatures …
who deposits her in the night on the steps of Willowbrae. She determines to keep her name to herself, to avoid the unwanted marriage, and the youngest son of the house, Mouse, names her Poss, for the “opossum that comes in the night and scrambles things up and is really cheeky with lovely big eyes”.
The family in whose house she finds herself, the Craws, consist of mother, father, two adult sons, Tobyn and Virgil, a dead sister in whose bed she is lying, and young Mouse. The two elements of the story are Poss’s refusal to be tied down to a proper feminine role, let alone take the place of the dead sister; and her discovery of a dead Aboriginal mother and baby – and subsequently the dead woman’s young English-speaking daughter – and her determination to have the death investigated, when it’s clear that a) it’s part of a wider policy of ‘dispersing the natives’, and b) that the baby was Virgil’s. The second element is made worse by her further discovery that Mr Craw is sending Aboriginal bones back to England for ‘research’.
A strange Vicar is introduced into the story, a shy, awkward man who offers Poss friendship. But the local townspeople want her gone, and by day seven Poss is facing the very real possibility of life-long incarceration in an institution for unmanageable women.
Mr Craw’s fists smash upon the desk. ‘You’re mad, child. Seeing things. It’s a sign of hysteria – and that ridiculous insistence on men’s clothes was only the start. There’s no “black man” here or anywhere near Willowbrae. You had a blow to the head and need medical help.’ Is he right? No, surely. ‘You need a doctor. Immediately.’
Gemmell is a fine writer and this is a powerful story, full of tension, about an imagined past in which heroic young women fought back against the murder of the original inhabitants. Despite my reservations I enjoyed it. I hope you read it for yourselves.
Nikki Gemmell, The Ripping Tree, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2001. 340pp. (sorry, I returned the CD without noting the reader. I imagine the running time was about 9 hours).
Nikki Gemmell website (here)
The ‘ripping tree’ is a tree from which the bark may be ripped in sheets. Gemmell says paperbark but (IMO) they are a relatively small tree and the bark comes off in flakes. Perhaps it’s different on the NSW north coast (I’m wrong, see Lisa’s comment below)