Taboo by Kim Scott review – a masterful novel on the frontier of truth-telling

The two-time Miles Franklin award-winner deftly navigates the strange, tricky terrain of decolonisation in an optimistic and exceptionally generous book

Kim Scott has been to jail, and it shows. Since he began working with prisoners in his groundbreaking Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories project, Scott’s writing has been pared to the bone, becoming far more accessible than the complex Benang, his second novel and first to win the Miles Franklin award in 2000. His latest offering, Taboo, is a novel infused with violence of many kinds and the vulnerability of his characters is so clear we tremble for them.

As in his second Miles Franklin-winning novel, That Deadman Dance, Scott is writing the frontier but here we are on a much newer frontier, familiar to Aboriginal people all over Australia. It’s the frontier of truth-telling, which has emerged after two centuries of colonial conflict, uneasy truces and silent shame. Taboo asks: after so much pain, after a history that has left so many of us incarcerated and broken, how can we possibly find peace together?

The story is set in the country around Albany and begins with the high drama of a runaway wheat truck roaring dangerously through the town of Kepalup. Outside town, Dan Horton’s wife Janet has died, and Dan, a white Christian, is happy that her ghost remains to haunt his old homestead. (She is one of two driving moral forces in the novel, the other being the Aboriginal dead.) Janet Horton had wanted to see justice done on her property and it’s in honour of her memory, rather than from any innate desire to please black people, that Dan has invited the Wirlomin to visit the massacre site where his ancestors murdered theirs. A peace festival is also proposed nearby and so, curious and uncertain, the Noongars agree to make the journey.

Scott disposes of revenge in his first paragraph, with a claim upon Wirlomin tradition. “We gave up on that Payback stuff a long time ago, because we always knew that death is only one part of a story that is forever beginning …” It is a strategy guaranteed to ease the minds of most white readers while worrying some Aboriginal ones. Scott has said that he wants to promote a discourse where his people are not “busted and broken … I wanted to show that there are other possibilities.” Many Aboriginal people would regard this position sceptically. Yet, in seeking reconciliation, Scott strongly implies that he is embodying the Aboriginal ethic of seeking rapprochement wherever possible.

It’s an optimistic stance and Taboo is an overwhelmingly optimistic novel, even though grounded in a brutal modern reality. Tilly, a Wirlomin teenager who was briefly fostered by the Hortons as a young child, has recently escaped sexual enslavement and Noongar people have been complicit in the atrocities against her. Tilly’s father is in prison for different hideous acts. Dan Horton’s son has been expelled from his family and in exile has become a monster, mimicking the violence of his pioneer ancestors. The bones of the Wirlomin ancestors still lie untended on Dan Horton’s farm. When the mob visit, Dan refers casually to the resting place of his own white ancestor as “the grave”, as though his entire property is not a memorial to scores of dead. How, then, does Scott remain so optimistic, so bravely focused on the possibility of peace?

The answer lies in the deep civilisation of the Wirlomin. In this novel, as in real life through his work with Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories, Scott turns to culture – specifically, language – to heal a traumatised people.

Cover image for the novel Taboo by Indigenous Australian writer Kim Scott

Take Gerald and Gerard, identical twins. Gerry has been in jail for sex crimes against young women, a crime he claims he is innocent of. “I never done nothing. That was Gerry.” One Gerry is definitely guilty but which one? The question is not what it appears to be. Upon release Gerry goes home “the old people’s way”, on foot across the suburbs. Gerry is being frugal, yes, but he’s being thoughtful too. It’s a hard choice but, as he tells his stoned cousins, he is on to “something even better” than the Christianity they accuse him of; better, too, than the drugs they offer him. He has learned in prison to speak some language and to see the world through more traditional eyes. Crucially, it is Tilly’s dying father – in prison for violence against Tilly’s white mother – who has taught Gerry this. The older man is quietly remorseful, redeeming himself by helping others.

Nearly all the black characters in Taboo are determined to do the strange, often awkward work of decolonisation. And as these modern people speak their ancient tongue, and walk their songlines in their various faltering ways, their efforts bear fruit. The Ancestors, too, begin to mutter and creak in their graves.

“We were clumsy, we stumbled and were still learning to speak and breathe again; we are hardly alone in that regard.”

Kim Scott navigates a lot of tricky ground in this fine, ambitious novel. His characters dance on the page through a multitude of startling events: a living curlew erupts from a campfire; a skeleton which is not a skeleton totters forward and speaks. And finally we are left with these understandings: prison stultifies. Language vivifies. The dead remain, always. And where tradition has been smashed, the vulnerable suffer most, women and girls especially.

Scott is writing about the taboo on telling the truths of Australian history – almost nobody wants to think about the massacre. Dan Horton hates the very word. And the Wirlomin have never before been back to the place where their Ancestors lie. But, by the end of the novel, we have travelled a very long way with them and more than one taboo has been exposed. Like Gerry and Tilly, Dan is transformed. Even the white drinkers of Kepalup see the world differently. And, in a breathtaking penultimate scene, we are brought to understand that decolonisation is not just for the mob who have always been here but for whitefellas too – at least those, like Dan, who are “beginning to grow up a bit”.

This is a complex, thoughtful and exceptionally generous offering by a master storyteller at the top of his game.


Melissa Lucashenko

The GuardianTramp

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