Our Shadows by Gail Jones


Gail Jones has once again hit on many wonderful moments for me, as she did in three other books of hers that I’ve read. This one is set first in Kalgoorlie, a gold mining area in Western Australia and later in Sydney. It is a busy novel, beginning with the non-fictional Paddy Hannon’s childhood in Ireland, before he spent 30 years prospecting in Australia, culminating in the discovery of gold in Kalgoorlie in 1893. That gold pit is now so large, it is said to be visible from space.

The dominant story focuses on three generations of a fictional family in Kalgoorlie beginning with Fred and Else, young during WWII, who lived near the Super Pit where Fred worked. After their beloved daughter died in childbirth, they cared for their two granddaughters who moved to Sydney as adults. Along with the dramatic lives of the sisters, we learn more of lives and deaths of miners and their families. There is a personal aspect to this story; in her notes and acknowledgements, the author says, “But I trust I have honoured, in some small way, the lives of my father and grandfather and the generations who endured the labour of underground mining.”

Describing the sisters, their grandmother Else says they were rebels and uncontrollable.

Mad as cut snakes, agreed Fred (but winked and smiled). He was their ally, closer than Else. To him they owed the lesson of gentleness and grandfatherly care….Both would remember the sour tobacco smell on his breath, his rough, rumbling cough, and the way he liked to touch their heads with an open palm. This they loved above all. It was a feathery gesture, made in passing, that softly confirmed they were there.

Also in their lives was the unpleasant Aunt Enid, their mother’s sister who described the sisters’ father as a “ratbag no-hoper.” The adult Frances has a small triumph over Enid, in the “sport of passive-aggression at which Enid was world-class. Had there been an Australian Open in passive-aggression–played haughty and sure in a high-roofed stadium, before an ironical, leering crowd draped in national colours–Enid would certainly have won.”

Of the shadows that appear in the book, the first comes when rail line workers in County Clare where Paddy lived discovered a box of Bronze Age gold jewelry at Mooghaun Hillfort. Paddy was 14 and it was 39 years later he made his own discovery of gold.

When Fred returned after the war, he rode his bike to visit the mother of Marty, an old friend who had died a particularly horrific death in the prisoner of war camp. Along the way he notes the sights and smells of the countryside he loves. “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.” The shadow this called to my mind was the wonderful fiction book by Robert Drewe The Drowner that I wrote about in 2014 that centers on bringing water to Kalgoorlie.

Years later when one of Fred’s granddaughters Frances visits Kalgoorlie, she finds a letter from a Japanese man sent to Marty’s mother telling of his kindness. Though she never heard of Marty who was a friend of both her grandparents, Frances tries to get it to Marty’s family.

During that visit to Enid in Kalgoorlie, Frances meets Val, a woman remarkable enough to soften even Enid. Val introduces Frances to the Aboriginal Language Center and she begins to learn the importance for Val of knowing her mother’s tongue, Martu Wangka. “It was a kindness of Val to bring her to this place. Tucked here, in this modest room, was something that might be forgotten or was otherwise hidden. Something beyond the official history the town:  Paddy Hannon, gold rush, the aggrandizement of wealth.”

The book ends with Frances traveling to Albany where her father had lived where she will look for some of her own shadows.

Gail Jones, Our Shadows, Text Publishing, 2020, 276 pages (I read the kindle version).

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