MOLLY MURN Heart of the Grass Tree. Reviewed by Sally Nimon
Kangaroo Island is an enduring presence spanning multiple generations in Heart of the Grass Tree.
Not too tight, not too loose. You have to keep adding in the rushes – not all at once, she said – like adding to a family. Keep it growing. When you finish you can’t see where it ends because there is no end, like an umbilicus.
These words, spoken by an Indigenous elder to Nell, the girl at the core of Molly Murn’s debut novel Heart of the Grass Tree, are meant to explain how to weave a sedge grass basket. But they serve equally well as a summary of this narrative, which dips in and out of the stories of multiple generations across three connected, but very different, centuries: the 19th, 20th and 21st.
The action is primarily set on Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia, an eco-tourism haven with great swathes of largely untouched wilderness. Even now, it’s possible for weary travellers to imagine themselves at the edge of civilisation while sipping a latte on the balcony of a luxury resort. But from the perspective of the 19th-century sailors who came to make their living hunting seals, it would have felt like the end of the earth.
And isolation does strange things to the human psyche. It can bring out the best in people, or the worst, regardless of whether the trappings of existence include corsets and oil lamps or mobile phones and satellite dishes.
Certainly, the strange island world confuses William, son of the sealer captain Anderson, who does not understand his father’s mercurial attitude towards the Indigenous women on whom their survival – and profits – depend. It also infuses Nell, born generations later, as she grapples with the consequences of hiding a teenage pregnancy in a community too small and constrained to permit any secrets. And it tears at Diana, Nell’s estranged daughter, when she returns with her own daughters Pearl and Lucy to manage affairs after Nell has died.
And all of this unfolds via a narrative which refuses to be constrained by chronology. Which is the point, of course. People are short-lived, restless and chaotic; they come and go and build their endless dramas, generation after generation. But the land is eternal. It sits, it endures, and any small impact we think we might make on it is nothing but an illusion. Rather like the names engraved on the steps leading to the Contemplation Seat – installed to commemorate the women who contributed to building Kangaroo Island – most of which are already weathering away. You can borrow me for a time, the island warns, make your home here, and do what you will. But if I choose I can remove you from my history entirely, as though you never existed at all.
The continual shifts between time and space, along with a relatively large cast of characters, not all of whom see much action, mean that this is not a book that encourages casual engagement. If you are the kind of reader who likes to dip in and out of a story, putting it down and picking it up over time, or maybe having three or four books on the go at once, you may struggle to keep up with the ever-changing threads. And, just as in life, not all of those threads are resolved. Every piece of this story, every person who enters its frame – even if only momentarily – contributes a piece of the picture. But the picture is bigger than any one individual. This is not the story of a person, or a family, or even a community. It is the story of an island, and islands existed long before we entered the scene, and will endure long after we are gone.
This type of novel does not allow the reader to be a passive recipient of the story. Instead, you are required to fit the pieces together, to become part of the consequences, lest your own role in the narrative fade away like the names weathered out of stone.
As all of us will, in the end.
Molly Murn Heart of the Grass Tree Vintage 2019 PB 292pp $32.99
Sally Nimon once graduated from university with an Honours degree majoring in English literature and has hung around higher education ever since. She is also an avid reader and keen devourer of stories, whatever the genre.
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