Something of a miracle has just occurred in Australia. A four year old girl, who disappeared in the night while her family was camping in a remote area of Western Australia, has been found alive and well after being gone for eighteen days. The whole country is rejoicing.
But while this was happening, I was reading Larissa Behrendt’s novel After Story where a child who was taken from her family home was never seen alive again.
Larissa Behrendt is an Indigenous Australian woman, a highly accomplished lawyer, writer, and film maker. This is her third novel. In both earlier novels, Home and Legacy, she has a protagonist who is a female lawyer from an Aboriginal background. Here, too, she has a main character, Jasmine, who is a politically aware lawyer.
Jasmine has planned to travel to England with a close friend on a literary tour that visits the homes and writing places of some key English authors. Writers like the Brontes, Jane Austen, Dickens and Virginia Woolf, all of whom mean a great deal to her. When her friend decides to seize a career opportunity that has presented itself Jasmine asks her mother Della to accompany her.
Della is not the easiest travelling companion. Unlike her daughter she is not a reader. She is chaotic and tends to drink too much. And she is suffering from a life-long grief. When her daughter Brittany was barely eight years old, she was taken from her parent’s home. Della gradually reveals the circumstances of this and the overwhelming guilt she carries. Brittany’s father Jimmy has also died in the last six months and Aunty Elaine, the keeper of the culture and stories in the family tradition has also died.
The book is structured around the differing experiences of Della and Jasmine. As they tour universities and museums Della’s simple but honest comments win her the friendship of Lionel the tour leader. In the British Museum she thinks
There was a lot of stuff in that museum the British had taken – large statues, urns and gold necklaces and there was even a whole temple. And I thought, you’ve got to be pretty cheeky to take a whole temple. It’s not like you can shove that up your shirt or slip in in your handbag. No wonder they never thought twice about our poor warrior’s head.
As they travel, we learn more about life in Frog Hollow; the discrimination and exclusion that still exists, the anguish of a family who has lost a beloved child, but who, because of their race, are blamed for it. We learn how Aunty Elaine’s wisdom holds the family together, the harshness of Della’s childhood with a bullying white father and Jasmine’s reflections on Fiona, a young woman and murderer whose case she is involved in.
Then a little girl goes missing on Hampstead Heath. Has she suffered the same fate as Brittany?
Della ‘s reflection and emotions provide the solid foundation for this story. She comes to so many things afresh. About Charles Dickens she thinks
I thought about little Charles Dickens, left alone in a factory, abandoned like an orphan. ‘Do you ever notice how it’s always, in fairy stories, the orphans who turn out to be special? Like Cinderella or Harry Potter?’
Child abuse both on a personal level and from a legal standpoint, English history, the story of a family falling apart, debates about the value of literature. This book has it all. Perhaps the Eng. Lit tour is a bit too schematic, but the author does have a Tour Reading List in her notes for interested readers to follow. But at bottom After Story is a deeply moving story about a family surviving a tragedy and learning compassion.
It is also a wonderful story about Aboriginal culture written by one who has the right to speak about it. The memories of Aunty Elaine’s culture stories breathe new life into Della and Jasmine and their extended family. After retelling Aunty Elaine’s story about the mystery of existence Della reflects
I thought about the story of the butterfly and how it said what Aunty Elaine seemed to say and what I felt, that when people die, they don’t leave us, they come back in another form, even if that is just in our memories, our dreams and the way we repeat the things we learn from them.