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Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman
Winner of the black&write! Fellowship

Hachette 2017
290 pages

This deceptively simple novel offers a powerful and damning examination of Australia’s colonial history and the price paid by the continent’s diverse first peoples. It is also impossible to discuss or review this book without destroying the source of its impact, so I will offer a very short, non-spoiler review followed by a proper one that you should absolutely not read if you intend to read this book. Let’s not make the same mistake they made with Never Let Me Go, people!

The title Terra Nullius refers to the British empire’s claim upon the continent of Australia, a claim that was justified on the erroneous but useful insistence that it was unclaimed land. ‘Terra nullius’, a Latin term, is generally translated as ‘nobody’s land’, meaning that the British claimed the continent for themselves, without a treaty, because they argued that it didn’t belong to anyone – and certainly not the natives, because they did not appear to farm it or own it as Europeans understand land ownership (Aboriginal peoples did, in fact, have territory, homes, rich and diverse cultural beliefs and traditions, industry and agriculture, it just wasn’t recognised by the colonisers). The myth of terra nullius continued long into the 20th century when it was finally, officially nixed by the Australian High Court in 1992 when it ruled, at the culmination of the Mabo case, that the land was owned and occupied by others, before the Europeans.

Coleman’s Terra Nullius is instantly recognisable as a colonial narrative written from a post-colonial – and indigenous – perspective. The setting – the hot, arid and vast terrain of Western Australia – is so richly drawn I felt that suffocating heat, the scarcity of water, the desperate need for shade. The characters are divided into two – the Settlers and the Natives – and the ideological and cultural misunderstandings between them, especially on the side of the Settlers, is palpable. The arrogance and over-confidence of the Settlers feels all-too familiar and the destructive cost of colonisation on indigenous culture and individuals is ever-present. So, too, is the desperate need to be reunited with the families and tribes the Natives have been forcibly removed from, their longing and fear and sense of utter powerlessness. All of it strongly conjured British colonisation in my mind, as intended, even though physical descriptions are few and far between. Here, the landscape triumphs as the third party, the unchanging, unconquerable land that one must adapt to, not change to suit. A silent, uncaring witness to conflict, but a vulnerable, fragile one, too. The land will always win, effortlessly. It is an underlying idea that meanders through the narrative, always present but in the background, a truth against which the conflict of colonisation plays out.

“A sun like that, heat like that – it bleached the entire sky yellow-white, nothing like the blue sky one was used to from home. It was that sky that was a warning, the yellow light a warning that this was not a hospital place. It was the glow of pain, the glow of the end of the world. It was not a friendly colour for a sky to be.” (p.39)

“It was a land of bones he walked, a land of death and bones and pain. He had helped make it that way, had added bones to the soil. He was as guilty as any other. He knew now though, that when you plant bones, nothing grows from them. Nothing but pain. As much as his homesickness racked at his soul there was no use thinking about it. This camp in the bush was his home – a series of camps in the bush would be his home until they planted his bones.” (p.86)

That idea, alone, offered a strong and confronting reading in the first 9 chapters of Terra Nullius. For a reader with some knowledge of Australian colonial history, the story – while slow, ponderous even – is confronting in its sense of realism, place and time. But Coleman’s only just getting started, and the real story begins in chapter 10.


Seriously, DO NOT read on unless you have already read the book!

So strong was my understanding that I was reading historical fiction about colonial Australia – about the invasion of the British and the impact on the indigenous peoples – that I honestly did not see the twist coming, not at all. I am not the type of reader who tries to be more clever than a book: I like to read a novel the way it is intended, not try to figure out how it will end. I don’t see the point in such an exercise, which seems like one of pure ego. I mentioned Never Let Me Go before – it has a similarly confronting ‘twist’ several chapters in that I did not see coming, and I was so dismayed to find that, as the book gained popularity – and particularly once the film came out – everyone was so free with the word ‘clones’. Possibly reviews in the papers – the Guardian etc. – have done the same thing with Coleman’s novel; I didn’t check, but in this case the word would be ‘aliens’.

That’s right: as the book jacket says, “This is not the Australia of our history. This Terra Nullius is something new, but all too familiar.” It’s an alien invasion. Or, rather, it’s several decades later, when ‘invasion’ has become ‘settlement’. And the result is devastating, heartbreaking and even more tragic for knowing that, really, it is history not fiction.

The Settlers are dubbed ‘toads’ by the Natives (and, as the narrative points out a bit heavy-handedly, the concept of racial difference amongst humans has disappeared entirely thanks to this new invasion – everyone’s just ‘human). The aliens share some physical similarities but are more amphibian and require a lot of water, even just moisture in the air, to survive. Australia, then, is definitely not a hospital place for them, but that doesn’t stop them – they’ve already taken the rest of the world, they can’t stop there. While the parallels between the alien Toads and the British empire are visible, so too are the parallels between the attitudes of the British and those of this new coloniser:

“The arrival of the Toads had eliminated all racism and hate within the human species. It was not that with a common enemy the humans had decided to work together – humans never made a decision to no longer fight between themselves. Instead the colonisation by the Settlers simply ended all discrimination within the human race by taking away all the imbalance. There was no caste or class within humans; to the Toads who now owned the planet and everyone on it all humans had the same low status. To the Toads, all humans were nothing more than animals.

With no distinctions between humans, no rights, no countries, the human race was in the process of homogenisation. A slave is a slave is a slave. Humans had in the past sought to assimilate all humans into one group – to breed out colour, destroy other cultures. Where they had failed the Toads had been successful.” (p.159)

Such sentiments can be found in the writings of colonisers, in the newspapers and diary entries of Settlers in our own history. As Coleman says in her Note at the end, everything in this book is based on things that actually happened, were actually said, during the colonisation of Australia by the British. In that sense, it’s not a new story, but the new circumstances puts the old into stark relief. I have read other books this way – John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began, for example, can work easily as an analogy for colonisation from the Aboriginal perspective, whether he intended it or not, but here, Coleman is deliberately making this confronting and often violent representation of our colonial past.

The main characters in the novel are Jacky, a young Native man who escapes from the Settler farm, fleeing on foot to try and find the family he was taken from as a child; Sister Bagra, the ‘mother’ of the nuns who run a mission for Native children, turning them into useful, obedient servants (that is, slaves); Johnny Star, a trooper who deserted and is taken in by a small gang of Native outlaws; Esperance, a young woman living with one of the few remaining ‘free’ tribes of humans in the outback; and Sergeant Rohan, a trooper sent to capture Jacky. Other characters whose perspectives we see this new and frightening world from include an inspector from the home world, come to investigate reports of cruelty against Natives at Sister Bagra’s mission; and the Devil, the head of the Department for the Protection of Natives.

The story is slow-moving and the first part took me a while to get through, but that exposition is important. The reader plays an integral role in the narrative; just as other texts – like the film Jindabyne – involve the audience in subtle ways, putting them in the position of colluding with a murderer of aborigines, or of unapologetic coloniser, the first nine chapters are vital to both creating the false confidence that I felt in thinking I knew this narrative, understood the players and the history; and to establishing that strong relationship between what has been done in the past and what is done in this hypothetical future. The intent is to challenge the on-going discrimination and low-class (or caste) status experienced by Australian aborigines today. It might seem obvious – too obvious – but I do feel that we are deliberately blind to anything more subtle, in this country.

As speculative fiction goes, this has dystopian elements as well as offering an allegory of British colonisation. This is Coleman’s debut novel and, as such, the writing is a little under-developed in places, a little lacking in subtlety at times, and, in places, the punctuation could be clearer for better flow. Characterisation is a bit sparse, limited to boldly-drawn strokes and tropes, and there’s not much verisimilitude. However, there are also some really lovely passages and the power of the narrative and its setting cannot be overlooked. Likewise, the success of those early chapters, when I thought I was reading historical fiction, was such that even at the end I experienced the sensation of overlap: that the Toads and the British were layered one on top of the other, a weird hologrammatic effect that ensured the allegorical nature of the aliens was never lost.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.

2 comments to Review: Terra Nullius

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