on March 21, 2000
Our book club recently read this novel for its monthly selection and found it to be a good choice. Although a couple of members were confused by the book's seemingly aimless direction and lack of a central character, the discussion we had was very lively and interesting. The author's nuanced insight into the point of view of each character let us see the profound effects Gemmy had on all the lives of the villagers. The work takes some digging to fully appreciate; then its poetic artistry and structure and purpose become more evident. The key is not to expect the book to read like a conventional novel of cultural conflict. This is more like a prose poem where the details are distilled to essentials, where an entire community is compressed into five or six main individuals, where symbolism expands the meaning and emotional content, where lyrical language stimulates thought, where ambiguity and mystery draw in the reader without giving way to romance. Gemmy, the catalyst for change, is complex and hard to figure: on the one hand he is pathetic, childlike, and vulnerable but on the other he is observant, considerate and spiritual. He brings out the best of those in the village who are open to new experiences and the worst in those who are close-minded and fearful. Also he touches the reader. This fable will be appreciated by the poetically-inclined and scorned by the literal-minded.
on July 12, 2000
I didn't read this for a class or an essay but I can see how it might have ruined it for me if I had to pick through it trying to find something tangible to say. That said, I found the trading of power (or at least the characters' perception of it) in this book most compelling. From one second to the next, as the characters in a scene come and go, or the shock of first appearances fade or linger, a feeling of control quickly becomes one of fear and distrust. It's a true Malouf masterpiece because he makes us think about the people in our own world today by letting us into a story in an otherwise distant time and place. It's a beautiful book, and reads to me- like most of Malouf's writing- like a pure stream in a dirty world.
Gemmy Fairley had been working as a ship hand when he became ill and feverish. His shipmates put him adrift on a raft rather than risk the health of the whole crew. Fortunately for Gemmy, the raft washed ashore on a desolate area of Australia. He was found by aborigines who he lived with for the next sixteen years.
One day while wondering with them, he spied some white men, whom he later sought out. A family in the new community took him in and tried to help him re-integrate into English style daily life. He had lost much of his earlier language skills and found it difficult to communicate.
What was happening with Gemmy was similar to what was happening with the English colonists. Both were out of their element and trying to fit their old lives into their current location. Gemmy had never had a 'good' nor 'safe' life and he didn't have the skills of how to live in a proper family. The colonists were trying to recreate an English pastoral life in a totally foreign environment that was often hostile to their attempts.
I most enjoyed reading of Gemmy's life and his attempts to fit in anywhere. He didn't find a safe place in England, not on the ship and even with the aborigines he was always an outsider. He wasn't either a white fellow or a black fellow, he was something else. I think perhaps that he was a lot of what was needed to for the transplanted English to survive in Australia, but that the whites refused to even consider the possibility.
on May 7, 2002
Gemmy Fairley doesn't belong anywhere. Tossed from the sea upon a wild Australian beach, the boy is a curiosity to the indigenous natives who discover and allow him to tag along, learning their language and customs. A strange yearning assails his dreams, images, memories of a beginning, brutal people and things barely glimpsed.
From a truly ignominious beginning, Gemmy schools himself to adapt to circumstances, intuiting acceptable behavior as necessary for survival. Throughout his wanderings with the Aborigines, he assumes the coloring of his surroundings, much as they do. But another voice, a distant curiosity calls Gemmy ever closer to the poverty-riddled settlers who view him as a threat. There is a life-defining moment for two young people, Lachlan and Janet, when they first see Gemmy, perched precariously atop a fence, held for a moment in time that marks their consciousness indelibly. Drawing Gemmy into their world, Lachlan is his mentor, Janet his friend, both protective of his innocence, forever fascinated with that first seminal glimpse.
In such an intimate and hardscrabble community, where human connections insure survival, Gemmy is a freak, too strange to be perceived as non-threatening, white, but with the outward visage of a black. Fearful and superstitious, they draw away, repulsed. Eventually, Gemmy finds himself moving back into the bush, unable to manage the demands of such a borderline civilization. Years later, as adults, Lachlan and Janet deeply reconnect over their youthful remembrance, that slender thread that attached them to Gemmy for that short time in their young lives.
The writing is powerful and beautifully rendered, with a sense of awareness that pulses with life. Immersed in nature's stark reality, words become feelings, thoughts merge with the heartbeat of humanity at its most vulnerable.
on October 29, 2001
Remembering Babylon is the story of Gemmy - washed up on the Australian coast as a boy after a life of harshness that is hard to imagine, he is taken in by group of Aborigines. Sixteen years later, he makes himself known to the white community of northern Queensland, where he causes the community to examine not only it's attitude towards what is 'civilised', but also causes them to look inwards upon themselves.
This is a story about frontiers - the physical frontier of the small community that Gemmy joins; the frontier of the new state of Queensland; and the frontier between civilised and primitive. There is some beautiful work in this book, especially in its examination of small community dynamics, and coming of age. But I feel that Malouf starts threads that he doesn't bother to finish - the ambiguous characters of Mrs. Hutchence and Leona are introduced with promises of an exotic past, yet we never get to know them. George the school teacher is developed, only to be left out of the second half of the story. While Malouf manages to pack a lot of punch into a short tale, I feel that perhaps just a little be of expansion would have made this an even better book. But I will admit that I got a kick out of reading a story set in my home state of Queensland - it is nice to see that there is some Australian historical fiction set somewhere other than the Southern States!
on January 26, 2001
Mr. David Malouf has the ability to take familiar topics, amend them, and create a new viewpoint, a valid book, and worthwhile reading experience. Fear generated by the unknown as perceived by ignorant or well-educated simpletons is not new. That these feelings are often expressed in terms of racial tension; hatred and violence are routine, not an exception, and anything but a novelty. In, "Remembering Babylon" the Author tells the tale in a manner new for me, and even though the behaviors of many involved were predictable, the new perspective and quality the Author brings to it made for very good reading.
As he has in previous works he sets the tale in Australia, and once again brings settlers from Europe, in this case Scotland. Mr. Malouf then takes a familiar human interaction, which is by definition tragic, and it is here he makes it his own. In terms of Race, Gemmy is as white as any of the settlers. He spent thirteen years in London, and then was washed upon the coast of Australia where he then lives amongst the Native Aborigines for sixteen years. As Gemmy has lived the better part of his life is the harsh sun he is no longer as light in complexion as the self-described white newcomers. Gemmy one day happens across the path of some children, and in fear of his safety announces he "is a British Object". The irony of this statement could be dwelt on for pages by itself.
There are many relationships a reader can explore in this story. I felt a key one was that between Gemmy and the Family headed by Jock that takes him in. Jock does so to please his wife, as Gemmy is not a person he would bring into his home with his Wife and Children. The reaction of the balance of the settlement ranges from degrees of fear, to desire to destroy the race that Gemmy has morphed into from the viewpoint of the duller of the participants. Gemmy at once becomes a trusted member of Jock's Family, and the focus for every evil fantasized, imagined, or counterfeited by others.
The storyline must be left for the book, however one experience shared by Jock and Gemmy is of note. Gemmy treated like the savage he is not, routinely stays several steps ahead of those who attempt to exploit him to gain knowledge of his tribe, and then extinguish them. Far from being intellectually inept, he combines the street smarts of the former London Urchin, with the practical knowledge of sixteen years of learning to live in harmony with the same land the settlers come to conquer. He becomes a harmless, productive and trustworthy part of Jock's Family if not the community.
Gemmy knows his own heart, and that of those he has come to live amongst. He is under no illusions as to how he is viewed, or how he sees the world. Jock goes through a major reassessment of what he thought he was, as events build around Gemmy. The Author explores in a thoughtful manner what our thoughts are made of, how they change, and whether it is we that change, or our views of others that change us.
The book is filled with smaller observations that are material for contemplation. The loneliness of settling a new land is a reality, but when the Author takes one player and has her ponder the thought of being the first dead to be buried here as well, and the loneliness of knowing no Family that has gone before, no one to join in the new resting place, is beyond poignant.
Another great piece of work from this Author.
on May 26, 1998
Malouf doesn't need much introduction, in all truth, the fairest comment one can make is "read him." With that said and in the spirit of contradiction, here is why I believe "Remembering Babylon" is such a great work of literature. The main story of "Remembering Babylon" is the return of Gemmy, a white young man to a European enclave in Australia, after having being thrown overboard from a ship and having lived among the Australian aborigenes since he washed ashore. Now this is the way the book begins, but it's narrative takes deeply into the heart of longing and pain of many of the people who settled there. To me, Gemmy -and through him everyone else in the novel- returns to a deeper place called language. Language not only as forgotten words but language as the home of memory, where the body recounts what has been exposed to and endured. Language that also shows each settler's agony in a strange land, unable to grasp the vast difference among human and landscape, in which they live. It's not a coincidence that the women of the settlement can express such compassion for Gemmy, they know something about being different themselves. As a matter of fact the women in the story are among the most thorough, true-to-life and complex renditions of a women's characters, that I have found portrayed by a male writer. This a story of people who have left their place of birth, however that happened, and lived ever since in that space that never fully reaches their end destination nor is able to ever return to the place of the original departure. In this sense, no one in the colony is exempt. Everyone dwells in this place which is not limbo as much as a cauldron where hope and despair burn, and it might turn into a new identity, perhaps even into a singular dignity. This is what this book might offer you, a journey to a time and place wher you might even find yourself.
on November 9, 1997
I found the issues addressed in this novel compelling. Firstly, the title, 'Remembering Babylon' refers to Psalm 137 where Hebrew slaves in Babylon lament the loss of Zion, their homeland. The novel addresses exile in various forms: immagrants in exile, members of a small community in exile. How can these immigrants from Europe belong in a place which is not their own? The answer is provided in Gemmy Fairly. He is ostracised by the European settlers, but at the same time is not an aboriginal - he represents a meeting place between the two cultures as he hovers upon the fence in the opening confrontation with the three McIvor children. The answer he provides, is one of spirituality. Throughout the novel there are certain parallels: White understandings of power (eg authority through guns, and land ownership) versus aboriginal understandings (kinship and oneness with the land), White spirituality in Rev. Frazer versus the tribal land spirituality. This is not merely indigenous stereotyping as Germaine Greer suggests, but a suggestion as to how newcomers can learn to make the new land home. This is done not by 'recreating Zion in Babylon' and trying to recreate a little piece of Europe in this harsh environment, not through topsoil forever ruined by the trampling of hooved beasts, but by connecting spiritually with the land, and becoming one with it. This point is most strongly reinforced by Janet, the McIvor's eldest daughter, in two occasions. Firstly, when the initial connection is made, bees (native - European hybrid bees, through no accident) swarm majestically around her, attracted to her menstrual blood like honey, but leave her unharmed, leading to her involvement with the convent to study bees. Secondly, in the last pages of the novel, as she watches the night fall and the tide rise, the concluding spiritual connection with the land is made. This is the point where exile becomes home. note: This short ditty was written in preperation for an exam, and thus have failed to include relavant references from Suvendrini Perera, Susan Wyndham, Germaine Greer and Joan Maxwell. sorry.
on April 25, 1997
Setting this book in the mid-1800's on the nearly uninhabited north coast of Australia provides David Malouf with plenty of leeway to explore some of his favorite themes. The book begins with the return to "civilization" of an English cabinboy who had gone overboard twelve years prior and had been nursed by aborigines. With the north coast now being settled by people fearful of the shy aborigines who they think may be a threat to them, all the characters feel isolated: the settlers from life in England, from the more populated centers of Australia, from the aborigines, sometimes from each other, and certainly from the strange young man who has made contact with them; the former cabinboy from his "countrymen," from the society of the sailors he served, from the aborigines who nursed him, and from the new society now being established on the north coast. All have differing views of reality, different values, and different understandings of what is important. The reader is forced to question what constitutes "civilization" and to ponder the extent to which we can have a "real" world without recognizing the importance of the supernatural and those who allow it to inform and transform their lives.
As in "The Conversations at Curlow Creek" and in "Harland's Half Acre," Malouf's main character must decide whether he will live in civilization as he has found it.
on May 30, 1998
Remembering Babylon, I found wasn't aas good as I thought it was going to be. I found at times it was hard to read. I used it as a book to put me to sleep!!!!It is a book I had to do a test about once. Maybe some others will enjoy it. And maybe I am sick of the Australian History!!!