Gail Jones is a professor of literature, cinema and cultural studies at the University of Western Australia and those disciplines play a prominent role in her latest novel Sorry. The novel centers around the childhood of Perdita Keene whose dysfunctional English parents have come to the Australian backcountry where she is born. Her father has a job as an anthropologist which keeps him gone for long periods of time, while her mother Stella, mentally unstable and never able to make the transition from a middle-class life in London to the Outback or from a single woman to a wife and mother, obsessively recites Shakespeare. Their life is a shack with a metal roof on the edge of a desert, its inside walls covered with newspaper clippings documenting the ongoing progress of WWII, stacks of books creating aisles of walking space, a single bed for the parents, a sleeping rug for the unwanted child.
Perdita discovers friendships with Billy, the deaf-mute son of a neighboring rancher and Mary, an aborigine girl who comes to live with them and care for her increasingly depressed mother. Though Perdita can’t escape the fractured learning from Stella’s half-mad recitations, it is Mary who pulls Deeta into the sensory real world—of the desert, and the wandering heritage of the aborigines.
The murder of her father, seen through the gauzy filter of Perdita’s memory—the four of them there: Perdita, Mary, Billy and Stella—destroys the balance of her life in the backcountry. Mary confesses to the murder, is taken off to a juvenile detention facility; and Perdita and Stella move to the town of Broome.
But these are only the external outlines. This is the story of a childhood, told from many interspersed points of view: the first person adult Perdita, the child Perdita, and a third person narrator. As a reader, the book has the feeling of a series of movie scenes, of constantly shifting camera angles and focus. Those changes happen in front of your eyes, yet your consciousness remains firmly fixed on the story surrounding Perdita’s childhood.
If that weren’t interesting enough, following her father’s murder, Perdita develops a speech impediment, where she is unable to express herself in language. The story moves into a kind of one-sided dialog and into the realm of an almost silent movie. But it continues without losing a beat, going underground into Perdita’s internal observation of her condition.
In her masterful poetic language Jones translates the universal experience of the Australian Sorry Day, the government’s apology to the indigenous peoples of their country for past mistreatments and relocations, into Perdita’s final wrenching experience of her childhood—the single unsaid word that is the book’s title.
This is literature worthy of any must-reads list.
Copyright 2009 by Toby Heaton