Sunday, January 15, 2012
Review: The Boundary by Nicole Watson
The Boundary: Nicole Watson UQP 2011 RRP: $24.94
This is the first novel I’ve read that incorporates issues of native title, community activism, social and emotional well-being issues, black bureaucrats, police thuggery and black deaths in custody, infidelity, stolen wages, black on black and white on black racism - all wrapped up in a skilful multi-murder mystery. Eloquently written by a first-time novelist, is it any wonder that the work by Birri-Gubba / Yugembeh lawyer Nicole Watson won the David Unaipon Award for unpublished manuscripts in 2009.
Set in Brisbane’s West End where an imaginary line called ‘the boundary’ is based on an actual boundary and curfew which excluded Aboriginal people from Brisbane-town during the 19th century, the novel centres around Meston Park (a thinly veiled Musgrave Park) as significant cultural and historical land of the Corrowa people. The locals have just lost their court battle for their native title rights to save the land from development by Coconut Holdings, who’s trade off for building is offering a tokenistic employment strategy for the local blacks. Unfortunately, the reality is that the Corrowa are just as powerless as their countrymen’s artefacts ‘kept in sterile glass cabinets, scattered throughout the Federal Court.’
The story of The Boundary is driven by the characters: Miranda Eversley, Aboriginal lawyer and alcoholic, estranged from her father Charlie, the much respected rights campaigner and spokesperson for the Corrowa.
Aunty Ethel Cobb, former dorm girl at Manoah Mission, who’s identity may be questioned but spirit and belief system is never in doubt.
Dick Payne, much despised Aboriginal lawyer and campaigner against welfare dependency, also owner of Coconut Holdings! Sherene Payne, family lawyer married to Dick but servicing Justice Bruce Brosnan (who judged the Corrowa could not prove their native title rights), that is until he is murdered!
Harrison McPherson (the 'Golden Tongue), incoming President of the Native Title Tribunal is a despicable paedophile and yet somehow sees himself as the James Bond of the legal profession. While Lesley Talgum, the high-ranking public servant with a gambling problem is a pariah among her own people.
The racist-thuggish-old-school cop, Higgins and his unsure-of-his-identity-partner, Detective Jason Matthews, do nothing for us to think much of the QLD police force. No surprises there for this reader.
And then of course there’s Red Feather as a character (which will leave you wondering: do ‘clever men’ really exist) and the actual ‘red feathers’ from the Paradise Parrot named as extinct in 1927 but somehow found at the scene of every murder.
The Boundary rang true for me with its storylines, phrases and characters, as well as the realities that I know only too well from visiting various communities. I smiled when I read ‘...if you wanted to have a yarn with a blackfellas – you have to fill them up with tucker first.’ And was equally saddened at the truth that: ‘Aboriginal people are usually defined by what they lacked – houses, infrastructure, services, long life spans.’ So true.
The Boundary is a simple lesson in the reality of the native title fight that Aboriginal Australians face, particularly in urban areas. It is a novel about a fight that will force every reader to pick a side: either that of the traditional owners begging for rightful claims to land ownership or the developers that governments feel they have the right to sell land to. Which side will you be on?
In the end, the book is also a reminder not to question the power of faith that blackfellas have in our own spirituality and culture.