A story of sacrifice, silence and forgiveness from Jones (Dreams of Speaking, 2006, etc.).
Perdita Keene is a little girl growing up in the Australian bush in the late 1930s. Her parents are English. Her father is an anthropologist, but his studies of Australia’s native people are never going to produce bold, revelatory theories about primitive humans, and he is never going to return to Oxford as a renowned scholar. Her mother had no idea, when she got married, that her husband would take her to the remote ends of the world. Her only consolation is Shakespeare. He is her religion, and she knows whole plays and sonnets by heart. The Keene marriage is a loveless one, and they make no effort to shield their daughter from the knowledge that she was a mistake. The only kindness Perdita has ever known is that of Aboriginal caretakers, and her only friends are misfits. Billy is deaf and mute—generally considered to be an idiot—and Mary is a native and an orphan. The fulcrum around which this novel revolves is the murder of Perdita’s father. The narrative returns to it again and again, each time revealing new information. When Perdita finally understands what really happened, when she struggles to find a proper response to her new and horrible knowing, the story resolves into an allegory about Australia, about the lopsided and lamentable relationship between white settlers and natives. Allegory is not, of course, a form known for its rich character development, and readers seeking narrative intimacy will be disappointed. Jones has a cool, ornate style. She always chooses the philosophical over the mawkish, the universal over the particular. This keeps her tale of neglect, abuse and murder from descending into melodrama, but it also keeps the reader at a distance. Jones’s rhetorical flourishes are often arresting, but her psychological insights tend toward the trite.
Poignant, but unsatisfying.