Kim Scott’s Taboo at the Book Group

Kim Scott, Taboo (Macmillan Australia 2017)

taboo.jpegBefore the meeting: Regretfully, I’m short of time to write about Taboo. It’s a very different book from Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance. That earlier novel engages with the early history of Western Australian colonisation with almost superhuman breadth of sympathy and already has classic status. This one is set in the twenty-first century, and follows a group of Noongar people who are returning to the site of a massacre with the hope of making things right – reestablishing contact with the old people, and with culture and language, and making some kid of reconciliation with the descendants of the perpetrators.

Taboo is based squarely in Kim Scott’s experience as an activist in language reclamation in Western Australia. I’ve just watched a video of a talk he gave on the subject at Melbourne University in 2012, in which he speaks about ‘the responsibility and obligations of being a descendant of the people who first created human society in this part of the world and keep that sense of society alive’. He speaks with modesty, charm, humour, and great power. It is a revelatory 50 minutes. I doubt if he had even started writing Taboo at the time of the talk, but he tells a number of stories that are clearly the inspiration for key episodes in the novel.

The novel doesn’t romanticise its Noongar characters: they have been scarred and in some cases corrupted by their history. They struggle with drug and alcohol issues. But awkwardly, shambolically, two-steps-forward-one-step-back, they find hope in what they can piece together of their heritage. The central character, fifteen year old Tilly, has reconnected with her Noongar father only as a teenager, and in the course of the novel is welcomed into her extended family, who see her as important to their project of returning to the massacre site (she was fostered by the farming family of the place when she was a baby). Her claustrophobic response to their embrace is vividly realised.

Maybe it’s just me (I’ll find out at the meeting), but while the novel has vastly expanded my sense of the world, it’s no masterpiece. There are elements of something like magical realism that are weirdly unsatisfactory, many narrative threads that are started up and never resolved, and an ending that feels like a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to make it all come together.

After the meeting, just a hasty note before I go to bed, because time is a bit short just now: This book sustained conversation like few others, and everyone who had read it had something interesting to say about it.

One man said that it wasn’t like a feature film, but more like the beginning of a television series: we were left wondering what would happen next for just about every character. Another said it was about the importance of stories, that it told many stories that didn’t necessarily connect. As readers we are left in an unsettled state of never really knowing the full story. I don’t think he used the word ‘unsettled’, but we did notice that we are all white men of a certain age, and the way the book made us feel had a lot to do with that. Without really leaving the book, we talked about the prospect of a treaty, about the relative value of symbolic acts, about the different meaning of a sense of place for Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons.

Another said that he thought the book was about loss, scarring, grief, dislocation, that there was hope, but built on a fragile and fragmented base. Someone disagreed that it was about loss – that it was more about the power of community in the face of loss.

No one else seemed to find the magic realism elements unsatisfactory, and I was in a minority in disliking the ending. One man said he thought it was the best novel written in Australia so far – precisely because its lack of resolution was a true representation of how things stand in the relationship between Aboriginal people and mainstream Australia.

It was our first meeting for the year. Our host prepared a meal that set the bar high. The book led us to focus our minds on things that matter. We enjoyed each other, laughed a lot, and I think I can say we all came out into the night very glad for the gift that Kim Scott has given us in this book.

5 responses to “Kim Scott’s Taboo at the Book Group

  1. *snap* This is such perfect timing! Emma from Book Around the Corner and I have just read and blogged our thoughts about True Country (Scott’s debut novel) and in the ensuing discussion, the subject of whether Scott writes the PoV of his female characters came up. He doesn’t in True Country: he shows what they say and do but not what they think, and anyway they are not central to the story. Women are not central characters in That Deadman Dance either. But Tilly is a central character in Taboo, and although Bill from The Australian Legend and I have both read Taboo, we could not remember if Scott writes from the female perspective or not. Does he get inside Tilly’s head?

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    • It’s a good question, Lisa. I think he does, When all the clan are fussing over her in the caravan park especially, we feel her discomfort. She slips away to the ablutions block (spoiler alert) and though there’s not a lot of internal dialogue, we understand the self harming impulse. Its not like Virginia Woolf, but there’s also her relationship with Doug and her flashbacks to it later. We do get inside Gerald’s head, and Dan’s, but Tilly is the character whose internal life is most given to us.

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  2. As always I love reading about your bookgroup. Mine met last night (Tuesday) and I’m posting my review (but not a commentary of the group’s discussion which focused on different things) on our book later today (it now being Thursday. I haven’t read Taboo yet, so I haven’t read the top part of your review, just your commentary. It reminded me of my group’s discussion this week, which started with one person saying she thought the book (ours, not yours!) was about loss and guilt, and another person saying they didn’t see it about guilt at all – and so on. Gotta love it, particularly when the discussion is respectful (as yours sounds to be and ours is) and thoughtful.

    Now, for one last search for the moon – I think the cloud cover is too great – and then I’m giving up and going to bed!

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    • I’m glad you enjoy my group, Sue. I love it to pieces. The conversation is very respectful in a robust kind of way. Phrases like, ‘That’s complete balderdash,’ are heard often enough, but any eye-rolls are for theatrical effect and never behind the eye-rollee’s back (unless that’s me of course). The meting was especially enjoyable because there were really diverse understandings of what was going on in the book. It was great to see people bringing their professional training to bear on it: a psychiatrist argued that the focus on the adolescent Tilly was a reflection of the adolescent nature of Aboriginal-settler dialogue in this country; a retired second-director for television talked about its televisual qualities (he usually has interesting things to say about locales); a political apparatchik read it as a roughly allegorical argument about a treaty; etc (That’s simplified, but it was a real thing.)

      I missed the moon too.

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