In Gail Jones’ 2008 novel Sorry, we are made to feel like guests in Western Australia, much like the English family in the pre-war years. The Keenes, headed by Nicholas, travel to Broome, one of the first towns of a multicultural Australia. Nicholas, with a prim English accent, is here to study the ‘natives’. Soon, his daughter, Perdita is drawn to the land and the people beyond the property boundary fence. Perdita’s voice intersects the elegantly constructed prose with hindsight and age.
It is hard to read any novel set in Western Australia without comparisons to Tim Winton. Jones joins a long list of writers entranced with the landscape, just as Winton is still captivated by it. What is it about the artificial line drawn across the continent that makes Western Australia more distinctive? As it is Jones lives and works in Sydney. Could you imagine Winton living in any other place than Western Australia?
This family of three, Nicholas in his formal attire, Stella, the mother constantly lost in Shakespeare, reject Perdita. She retreats to the mute Billy and the Aboriginal Mary. It is always summer in Sorry: “It was a hot day, the lolling and billowing, stirring from the east.” it is heat and constant state of battle that defines the natural landscape.
This time period, just before the war and leading into the second world war, intrigues me and I always question how and why so many writers place their novels in this era. In places, the war is just a guest: “At 8am, on 7 December 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in Hawaii.” The more profound scripted pieces see the father, than the mother, clip images, maps and articles from two week old newspapers. These clippings are pinned to the wall, encircling the family shack. It is an image that reminds me of Cloudsteet, with Quick Lamb placing images of world war 2 and the Holocaust on his bedroom wall.
Late in the novel, with Perdita in Perth, evacuated from the north, suffering from shock and a stutter, Jones depicts a strict teacher in a moment of “full-bodied collapse”. Mr Graves has read about the American destruction of Monte Cassino, having travelled himself to the “beautiful building” with “sacred works of art and intellect from earliest antiquity.” Mr Graves crumples and is helped by Perdita. This is only a small moment, a Wednesday in 1944, as Jones brilliantly understates, but it had a profound effect on me. For me it was a kind of moment that tangles with most Australians. We can respect and feel empathy for others, be moved by ancient Rome or Greece or civilizations beyond our shoes. We can be moved by others, yet, sacred works of art, intellect from beyond antiquity, that of the indigenous people can be disregarded. The pain, the marginalization, forced removal and barbaric acts towards indigenous people are here in Sorry and I feel some of Perdita’s emotional detachment is a comment on this systematic mistreatment.