By Gail JonesFiction Text Publishing
Our Shadows tells the story of three generations of family living in Kalgoorlie, where gold was discovered in 1893 by an Irish-born prospector named Paddy Hannan, whose own history weaves in and out of this beguiling novel.
Sisters Nell and Frances were raised by their grandparents and were once closely bound by reading and fantasy. Now they live in Sydney and are estranged. Each in her own way struggles with the loss of their parents.
Little by little the sisters grow to understand the imaginative force of the past and the legacy of their shared orphanhood. Then Frances decides to make a journey home to the goldfields to explore what lies hidden and unspoken in their lives, in the shadowy tunnels of the past.
Our Shadows, Gail Jones’s eighth novel, straddles multiple perspectives from three generations to tell a rich, multifaceted story about the legacy of gold mining, place and family.
The only real-life primary character in Our Shadows is Irish-born prospector, Paddy Hannan, who discovered gold in Kalgoorlie in 1893. His fictionalised recollections – of ‘all the dirt-turning, and dry-blowing, and undisguised lust for colour’ – are braided together with the stories of gold miner Fred, his wife Else, and their grandchildren Frances and Nell, who they take into their care following the death of their mother.
Jones is at her best in her evocative, spellbindingly horrific descriptions of working down in the gold mines, as she situates the greed and violence of Australia’s first discovery of gold and the disempowerment of the men working in the mines to make broader statements about colonisation, destruction of country, displacement and class. By placing her characters from disparate timelines side-by-side, Jones is telling us that the reverberations of Australia’s extractive mentality continue to ripple outwards and downwards.
Our Shadows is beautiful, poetic and portentous writing on trauma, loss, illness, ageing and greed – every word carries weight and meticulosity. Hokusai’s The Great Wave, captured on the front cover, is a reoccurring emblem throughout the story, one that exemplifies the quality of Jones’s writing as it crests and recedes, capturing something fundamental about the human condition and our cultural identity as it delves into the minutiae of its characters’ lives.
In the year of the treasure, daffodils massed everywhere, on rises and hillocks and under the gloom of dark beech. They sprang on ridges and spangled in the muck of damp corners, found space under eaves and beside barrels and tottering woodpiles, and along the shady paths that curved towards the ruins of the Abbey.
So many trumpets and tubular bells.
Later, it would seem a portent, this excess of gold. For the poet-farmer Ned Moody, they were bright constellations. The widow Ella Byrne claimed they were a holy sign. ‘Sweet Jesus!’ she said to Paddy’s mother, upraising her hands.
You couldn’t invent it, so much growing and bobbing under the bulge of a spring-time sky.
Paddy’s schoolteacher passed him by chance in the lane and said, ‘What gold, Paddy boy, what a splendid find!’ as if it had been his own book-learning that read the flowers and found the trove.
Paddy looked down at his shoes, taking it all in. He was abashed to be smallish at fourteen and still called Paddy boy. He was abashed to be outside the big story of the treasure. Everyone spoke of it, or had some connection.
The find was a few miles away at the Mooghaun Hillfort.
One of four rail workers building the Limerick to Ennis line plunged his spade through bracken and briar, and by the grace of God or Mammon discovered a stone box, full of gold. The hoard looked like brass, they said, and all black mud and slime and nothing much worth a bother; but realised soon enough that it was gold they held in their hands; and with that they went quiet, and trembled, and one said, ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph!’ before they whooped and celebrated and hugged each other. They were excited, joyful with greed and alive with wild dancing. They were poor men, poor workers, transformed by fortune, watched by godwits and swifts and a single raven, gliding, as they downed their railway tools and brought up the barrow. Spat on their hands for spirit. Looked around as if watched. Spoke now in hushed tones, afraid to break the spell of the find. There were bracelets, neck pieces and what might have been earrings. There was even a crown, of ten sharp triangular points. Daniel Gregan wore it, they said, and looked grand he did, grand.
Imagine, they said, Dan Gregan wearing a crown.
And in the village of Quin local folk delighted to imagine it, and what a treat it was, one of their own, crowned with gold and made special.
Paddy’s father saw some of the hoard in a small pub in Ennis. One of the finders, Mickey Corcoran, was proud to display his share and showed a collar, shined for the occasion and a marvel to behold. They’d seen nothing like it, a crescent moon worn centuries ago, in godless pride, perhaps, by a chieftain or a king.
Those at the pub that were recently starving wondered what a new age this was, with such finds in it, for men on the railways to dig out with their spades and bare hands. There were oohs and aahs and a hum of envy and admiration. Folk at the back pushed forward, and they could not believe their eyes.
Under the heading ‘Gold Rush! Late Bronze Age 1200BC to 500BC’, a list appeared in the newspaper: 138 penannular brace- lets with solid, evenly expanded terminals; three penannular bracelets with evenly expanded, hollowed terminals; six beaten collars; two lock-rings; two penannular neck-rings; three ingots; two torcs; one ten-pointed crown.
These were terms some of the folk had never heard before, penannular, torc. Even the schoolteacher wasn’t entirely sure. Word was that the navvies sold a few pieces to be melted before the authorities caught on, so that what had been history became blunt wealth, little brooches or pins, or a wedding band. What remained went to Dublin, for display in the museum. Mickey Corcoran one day visited his aunt in Quin and when he was asked agreed that yes, the daffodils were a sign, that like them he’d never seen so many in a single year. They’d all noticed, he said. All had noticed the daffodils. So gold was exploding all around them, soft-nodding, when they made their find, digging there beside the ruins and broken stones of the fort; just as the folk of Quin saw how lovely the world had become, full of promise after lean years, full of good luck and new dreaming and pretty as a picture in a frame.
Paddy’s father never tired of describing what he’d seen. Like something fallen from the sky, he said, made in the heavens. He insisted on the antiquity and quality of the goldsmithing. They knew what’s what, those old folk, he liked to say. What’s what, and how to craft fine-looking things.
His children wished that he’d been shown the crown. What was more unlikely than a crown of gold in County Clare? After the years of famine, and folk leaving, and talk of bag-of-bones babies, and howling mothers torn apart and soaked in grief. After tales of men slitting their throats with a rusty scythe under cover of darkness, or women setting barns afire, so as to be transported. In this beautiful country, peat yielded the dead. A spade might strike at the uncoffined bodies of the Hunger. Under a field, under a spongy sod, you might find a man bound in sacrifice or punishment. A cord at the neck and scoured skin, tarn-stained and unlovely.
They all knew of it, and it scared them. That there could be a skull, or a hand.
And now here was a turnaround, by Christ. Here were flowers, and a fortune.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist