The opening line of Kim Scott’s latest novel, Taboo, ‘Our hometown was a massacre place’ makes it clear where he is coming from, and indicates where he is going to go. Set in a small town in Western Australia, it is not, as it says, a fairytale, but is magical but also brutal in the ‘drama that has been playing for over two hundred years’.
Brothers Dan and Malcolm now own the land on which a massacre occurred many years ago. The local people have decided to state a reconciliatory act by opening a Peace park. Descendants of those who were murdered are invited to attend.
A motley group of the traditional owners, the Wirlomin people, gather and head there, mostly in a bus, but also the central character Tilly comes by car with her uncles, twins Gerrard and Gerald, who both go by Gerry. Tilly has a chequered history of being fostered by Dan and his wife Janet, then raised by her mother, preyed upon by dubious characters, not knowing her father until she was a teenager, then he and her mother both die and she ends up in boarding school on a scholarship. Despite this, or because of this, she has become a tough young woman who shines through the book.
It looks at questions from both an Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspective through the different characters and the way they speak, think and act. The reasons behind the massacre are described and defended. It is balanced, not trying to shy away from the problems within the Aboriginal community, with many trying to escape their demons and beat addictions, but clearly reflects the reasons why the issues are still occurring. It does also highlight the positive, challenging stereotypes – Wally who likes to get up early and work, the ‘fairer’ Aboriginal people, men in prison starting language groups. It also recognises while terrible things were done in the past ‘there’s good white people too’.
The family relationships with all of their complexities are reflected beautifully, with the extended group of chartacters of all ages. Language is referred to often, but it is not actually used in the dialogue, clearly a choice to show that this is part of the culture that has endured to different extents, but is not included in the book.
This novel is devastatingly tragic and shameful but also with great hope, it is an incredibly powerful story of survival and renewal, that all Australians should read.