By Kim ScottFiction Picador
That Deadman Dance
In That Deadman Dance, set during the first decades of British settlement on West Australia’s southern coast, Kim Scott explores the earliest cross-cultural encounters between the Noongar inhabitants and the European settlers – and the fleeting promise of peaceful co-habitation. Writing in the spirit of the early Noongar – his ancestors – he imagines what was briefly a ‘friendly frontier’ largely from their perspective, creating a cast of engaging characters and a series of complex relationships that inevitably drive the future of the fledgling colony.
Chief among those characters is Bobby Wabalanginy, a young Noongar man who eagerly befriends the newcomers, joining them in hunting whales, tilling the land and exploring the hinterland. But as the settlers gain confidence in their new surrounds, they impose ever-stricter regulations on the original inhabitants and tensions inevitably build, leaving Bobby caught in the middle.
Deeply researched and richly imagined, this is an important novel that is both warm-hearted and politically charged. Scott is a master stylist, and his stark, poetic storytelling marries with the intricacies of his ideas to deliver an engrossing read.
In That Deadman Dance, Kim Scott lyrically imagines the early encounters between Western Australia’s Noongar people and the first Europeans to settle on their land. Through his charm, curiosity and creativity, Bobby Wabalanginy draws two cultures together, invoking both in his descriptions of and ways of being in the world. It is this creative interplay between the Australian and European cultures—and most particularly their languages—that Scott’s novel celebrates, even as the reader sees a tragic future closing slowly in. Of profound relevance to contemporary Australia, the story Scott tells nonetheless wears its importance lightly, captivating the reader with compelling storytelling, authentic characters and a vivid portrait of life in a very specific time and place.
This is a beautifully written, complex narrative. It is set in the early 1800s and explores, with sensitivity and strength, the changing relationship between Aborigines and European settlers in southern Western Australia. The author captures the essence of the place so poetically and exactly that the reader can visualize with certainty the beauty of the untainted Australian bush or the throng and magnificence of a huge pod of whales. Likewise his words provoke great sadness as those same animals are decimated or as individuals in authority declare the need to ‘civilize’ and control the indigenous landowners.
His characters are alive – we dance with them, we struggle with them. We know them through their own words and find them diverse and often driven. Bobby Wabalanginy, who we meet as a child, is at first loved and accepted by all. He is bright, theatrical and fearless and is able to bridge the gap between the two cultures. It is through him and his mentor, Dr Cross, that we initially see some promise for a peaceful, coexistence. This promise begins to fade as the story becomes more complex, as we are unsure which way characters might jump and as the Noongar people make a stand for their own survival.
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