'Terra Nullius' by Claire Coleman - Reflection by David Burton

We're racing through the Stella Prize shortlist before the announcement (tonight!). Check out our other posts on shortlisted titles: 'The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree', 'An Uncertain Grace', 'The Fish Girl', 'The Time to Come'. 

“We saw little evidence of a desire on your part to try and understand our ways. We tried to understand you yet we could not. I don’t know if you made any genuine attempt to understand us but if you tried you failed.” – JOHN FARMER, NATIVE ADVANCEMENT LEAGUE

Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius isn’t the book you think it is.

It’s early colonial Australia. Indigenous children are being taken from their families and placed in missions. There are malicious nuns. Bloodthirsty soldiers. A young boy on the run. Settlers beginning to have doubts. Yes, it’s Aussie historical fiction. It’s devastating and familiar.

xterra-nullius-a-novel.jpg.pagespeed.ic.oDfhN43zVYBut just shy of halfway, something else happens. There are new invaders, and we shift into speculative fiction. Not black or white but grey beings, more powerful than any of Earth’s forces, invade the planet.

It’s here that Coleman’s full imagination and wit is unleashed. The symbolic weight of these cosmic aliens makes history shimmer with a new realism and deepens it with a gut-punching dread.

Coleman’s inclusion on the Stella Prize shortlist is more than deserved. This work and this writer are impossible to ignore - daring, compelling and bright.

I stumbled with the opening passages only because I made the mistake of presuming to know where the novel was taking me. That, and the haphazard use of repetition made me pause. Was the writer being deliberate in passages like the following? (emphasis my own)

Fights over those scraps of canvas had kept her awake at night, many times. The issues are most likely to cause long-term problems were also the issues most likely to causing fights, keeping Esperance awake at night.” 

Any hesitation is put to rest by other sections where Coleman conjures a heart-stopping image that leaps off the page:

“He saw a man running, his tattered rags of clothing afire, chased by laughing troopers, trailing smoke and flickering light. He saw a gutted man still living, holding his entrails with desperation as his eyes slowly faded. He saw a woman shot, bent over her child to protect it, then a man shot bending over her to wail for her life. He saw death: death walking and death running, even death dancing. He saw death in the blades and death in fire and smoke.”

The images, writing and impact of the novel really comes into full swing in the second half. The Australian colonial story is rendered new again, refreshed for the twenty-first century as critical female indigenous voices like Claire Coleman’s gain traction.

I predict Claire Coleman’s best work is yet to come. I’ll be first in line to read her next work. In the meantime, Terra Nullius is a must-read for every Aussie. It should be required reading for every year twelve student across the country.