Monday, March 5, 2012

Australian Women Writers: Gail Jones’ Sorry

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

It may seem a big ask but every Australian should read Gail Jones’ novel Sorry.

Set in Western Australia, it covers the depression and war years from 1930 to 1945. Anthropologist and Great War veteran Nicholas Keene takes his wife Stella to the Kimberley near Broome to study “the natives’. Their daughter Perdita is born there and increasingly relies on local aboriginal people for the care that her dysfunctional parents are unable to give her.

It’s a story about relationships: family, friends, and community. It is fundamentally about the lives of outsiders: the dispossessed, the isolates, those who live on the fringes of society, the unseen and the unheard.

If sorry is just a word as some politicians have argued, words are central to this narrative. Language is at its heart: written, spoken and signed. Books are central. Nicholas is a great book collector. Perdita and her aboriginal friend Mary are “hidden in the valley of pages”. Ironically, Mary reads about Captain Cook as Perdita follows Dickens’ ill-treated child David Copperfield.

The girls are not just linked through their love of literature. They become sisters within the aboriginal skin system, establishing relationships and obligations that continue to be important throughout the story.

Despite her difficulty understanding Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s classic holds a special place for Perdita. It has numerous parallels to Sorry: the isolation; the treatment of the indigenous people; the horror within and between individuals.

The bard and his “big questions” strut across this antipodean stage throughout. Stella retreats further and further into Shakespeare as her own mental state collapses: Hamlet, Lear, Othello and the MacBeths. Fittingly, Perdita’s name comes from The Winter’s Tale.

Mary has a literary theory that “when people read the same words they were imperceptibly knitted”. They share “ imperceptible continuities and inspiring revelations”. One of her favourite books is the Lives of the Saints, a Catholic tome intended to both inspire and frighten its young readers. Later it helps to knit the girls together when they are separated. However, Perdita is not won over by the nuns’ quest to save her “immortal soul”.

Despite all Stella’s soliloquies, Sorry is steeped in silence. Perdita’s other friend Billy is a “deaf mute”. She is condemned to her own form of invisibility by a severe stutter that starts dramatically when she is ten.

Perdita explores her own theories. She questions whether reading is “a channel, somehow, between author and reader, an indefinable intimacy, a secret pact?”

Gail Jones establishes much of her intimacy through the use of Perdita’s first-person passages that are far more revealing of her inner life than the more matter-of-fact third person narrative.

Gail’s use of language is unusual. Her vocabulary would be familiar to readers in the 1930s but she brings an original style that sometimes demands a lot of her audience:
“In the smaller community of three, taut with conjugal unhappiness and the burden of an unacceptable child…”

“Stella’s words still carried sensuous violence. She performed virtual murders as other women did gossip, and she had been seduced not by the comedies, but by the horrors of the tragedies; not by the love sonnets, melliferous and sweet, but by those that dealt with the morbid erosions of time. Unmaking obsessed her, and the making of nonentity.”

“Afraid of slumbery agitations…”
Dreams and memories are a vitally important part of these agitations. While Stella dreams of snow falling in the desert, Nicholas' nocturnal wandering takes him on a very unsatisfactory visit to an aboriginal campfire. In fact snow is the final image of Perdita’s recollections.

In her concluding A NOTE ON ‘SORRY’, Gail explains the significance of the word for indigenous people in Australia. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s historic apology to the stolen generations did not come for another year. The novel has many messages but these are channelled through the personal rather than the didactic. It is “a story told in a whisper”.

Coincidentally, I read Gail’s account of the 1942 Japanese bombing of Broome on 3 March, the 70th anniversary of the attack. Sixteen flying boats were sunk with dozens killed, including many Dutch civilians. The remains of the planes can be visited during very low tides, as we did a few times when living in Broome in 2007.

In another coincidence, the last chapter begins with the words of the title of the last novel I reviewed What Remains. There is a note of hope to finish - "something venerable and illustrious beneath such waste" beyond the horror. The final word is “peace”.

By the way Sorry is also a bit of a murder mystery. Enjoy!


  1. I need to revisit this book, I've read almost all of Gail Jones' books, but my favourite is Dreams of Speaking. Have you read it? It's about modernity, (tragedies and delights of) progress, the spaces between people (and much, much more). Thanks for reminding me of much of what I loved about Sorry.

  2. I am quite intrigued by your review. I recently read Five Bells and loved the writing though was less enamoured on the story.

    Thank you for sharing your review for the AWW challenge

    Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out

  3. Thanks for the review. It has whetted my appetite. I've only read Dreams of Speaking and found that outstanding.