Review: Katie Dobbson Fiona McFarlane

Back to the Old House

Karl Rapp, a Swedish artist who appears in Fiona McFarlane’s new novel, is camped out in the Flinders Ranges with his English wife Bess. It is 1883, and Karl is a recent, reluctant emigrant to Australia. He has done his time in Paris, returning home to apply himself to ‘Swedish themes rooted in native soil’ as the nationalist fashion dictated. Still smarting from the verdict of a ‘patriotic critic’ who dismissed his ‘humid pastels’ as ‘unduly French’, he must now adapt himself, as his artist wife insists, to painting Australian subjects. ‘But no Australian subject (is there such a thing?) has interested him – until this sky, the thought of which exhausts him.’

McFarlane is clearly satirising settler attitudes toward Australia here: a land resistant to imported modes of representation and lacking in grand themes. And yet, as an MFA-holding expat who teaches creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley, she perhaps experienced something of Karl’s trepidation as she turned her attention to the 1880s, when Australia was at the height of its own nationalist myth-making, and realised she was about to take on that most canonical of Australian subjects, the lost child.

Lost child stories have appeared so frequently in our national literature that a vast critical discourse has grown around them. As Peter Pierce suggests, these stories have long been used by white Australians to work through settler anxieties of unbelonging. Elspeth Tilley argues that ‘white vanishing’ narratives, compulsively retold, enable white Australians to assume a victim position. While the search for the lost child offers a chance for the community to rally, assert its heroic qualities, the lost white child functions as a symbol of national innocence, obscuring a history of violent dispossession.

In 2022, McFarlane’s tale of a child losing his way in a dust-storm was only ever going to be a critical revision. The author was faced then with an arduous task, pitching that old prayer tent of Ozlit – ritual airing place of settler hopes and anxieties – only to dismantle it, peg by peg, without it all collapsing into a mere narrative of appeasement.

When six-year-old Denny loses his way on the outskirts of the fictional South Australian town of Fairly, there is little evidence of communal rallying. Moving between the characters, the omniscient narration reveals individuals consumed by their own priorities. Visiting Sergeant Foster is driven less by a need to find the boy than by a desire to write a gripping book on the affair. Even the town’s own newly-wed constable, Robert Manning, is in no rush to pull himself away from the bridal bed. Billy Rough, a Yadliawarda man, who works for Denny’s father, Mathew Wallace, seems to be the only character with a sense of urgency, riding to Thalassa station to implore sheep farmer George Axam to release Tal, ‘the best tracker in the district’, from his employ. Billy knew George’s father; when he settled Thalassa on Billy’s country, Henry Axam singled the young boy out, furnishing him with cricket whites, promising ‘glory and Lord’s’. In the process, he estranged Billy from his culture, forbidding him to use language or complete his initiation ceremonies. Ignoring Billy’s warnings, Henry died riding across a river in a flood. Still holding Billy responsible, George refuses his request for assistance – the first of many settlers in this novel who, resentful of their dependency on Indigenous people to survive, are given to perverse plays of power.

Though English settler Mathew hopes to find his son, his motivations are not entirely selfless. Having married Mary, a preacher’s daughter, he seeks to redeem himself as a ‘good man’ in her eyes and justify settling in this place she looks upon with bewilderment: if he finds the child, he imagines, ‘the carting will pay well, they’ll have a wet spring, the wheat will thrive and the principal will be paid on the mortgage’. As Tilley suggests, it’s a convention of the traditional lost child story to link the fate of the lost white child to the discourse of manifest destiny (while American in origin, the phrase was, as Nicholas Ferns highlights, in the second half of the nineteenth century ‘co-opted and used to present the case for the complete occupation – by white Australians – of the Australian continent’). McFarlane, self-consciously reprising it, mounts an implicit critique of the use of religion to justify the settler project (as Mathew thinks, ‘children and marriages and farms grow into their ordained forms’). Staking his family’s economic security on a dry landscape where the last two harvests have failed, Mathew is engaged in a stubborn variety of magical thinking. He displays a similar obstinacy in setting out with Billy to search for Denny. Depending upon Billy to track, but ignoring his advice when it doesn’t suit him, he seems unlikely to find Denny; this is a story where the settlers lose more children than they find.

Denny’s fifteen-year-old sister Cissy offers an exasperated take on these adults and their failure to rise adequately to the occasion. She can be an exacting idealist, but her perceptions are often acute. She distrusts her mother, who is too cocooned in her faith to appreciate what is at stake: ‘it’s as if she went walking down a road one day and someone came up behind her, put one hand on her shoulder and held her there – and she was willing to be held’. Resenting the narrow lives led by the women of Fairly, and prone to ‘obscure furies’, restless Cissy has a certain kinship with Janet McIvor from David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon (1993), who ‘all silent mutiny … would stand punching at a lump of dough’. But there’s also a touch of the foolhardy heroine to her: having ‘waited all her life to be part of a catastrophe, so that she might take some decisive, swift action for which she will always be remembered’, Cissy is determined to join the search. In a wry nod to a foundational lost child narrative, Mary Grant Bruce’s 1913 novel Norah of Billabong, in which the plucky twelve-year-old heroine rides into the bush on her pony and finds the child, Cissy sets out on a skittish horse. Cantering here and there, she finds only the vicar, Mr Daniels, an adult she considers even more ineffectual than the rest. Hearing of the lost child, he wandered off from the settlement to find ‘a high place to pray and be tested’ and is now in a delirious fever.

It’s as though the dust-storm that sets the novel in motion has blown in every stock character from the pages of the canon: a feverish vicar, a prophet in the wilderness, a stoic Christian mother consoled by her faith, and a lonely wife waiting for her husband at home. This cast of usual suspects brings to mind McFarlane’s short story, ‘The Movie People’, in which the residents of a small town continue to wear period costumes long after the crew making a film in their town up and leave. A homage to Peter Carey’s short story ‘American Dreams’, ‘The Movie People’ makes an analogous point: a community trading on its provincial identity becomes a pastiche of itself. Though her novel wears its historical research lightly, and her characters are more than mere ciphers, McFarlane deprives them of the dignifying shelter of a heroic narrative; as they delay and mill about, waylaid by petty feuds and assertions of social hierarchies, classic Australian tropes come in for parodic reappraisal.

Moving between the perspectives of characters within the search’s radius, the omniscient narration alights on Karl, the artist camped out a few miles from Fairly with his wife Bess. In grappling with the ‘apocalyptic’ Australian sky that has ‘chosen [him] for its own mysterious reasons’, Karl is an affectionate riposte to Patrick White’s own tortured visionary, the German explorer Voss. Unlike his intertextual kin, this Swede’s prophet-in-the-wilderness shtick is exposed as willed, performative: ‘he could say anything’, he thinks, drafting self-aggrandizing letters home to an artist friend. Every time Karl’s narration slips into the epiphanic mode, McFarlane undermines it. As the dust-storm approaches, he waits to be plunged ‘into darkness. After all, this is the desert – a prophet should meet the Devil here. But a true prophet, Karl acknowledges, wouldn’t undertake his pilgrimage in spring … or be ordered on the pilgrimage by his wife.’ Karl is emasculated by the more pragmatic Bess, who, when she is not hunting wallaby for dinner, is throwing herself unfussily into her artwork, ‘delighted by the challenge of this landscape’. Feeling excluded by her self-sufficiency, he is envious of a ‘room’ she enters into where he cannot follow. The metaphor recalls Woolf’s landmark essay, unwritten at the time the novel is set; as with the allusions to a yet-to-be published Voss, the reader experiences an uneasy anachrony. But McFarlane is not seeding an imperial feminist notion of women’s diminished culpability in the settler project or their greater intuitive attunement to the land. As the narrative unfolds, we see there is something nefarious about Bess’s pragmatism. Her father may have ‘lost the largest textile mill in northern England’, but creative work enacts its own form of possession. Capitalising on Denny’s experience, she plans to write an illustrated children’s book in which a wallaby leads a lost child to safety – an explicit jab at the sentimental settler children’s book, Ethel Pedley’s Dot the Kangaroo (1899).

If the inclusion of Bess is a self-reflexive move, gesturing to McFarlane’s own sense of complicity, she is not the only character in the novel hungrily circling the lost child trope. Sergeant Foster has published several books on the frontier, and an extract from his notebook hints at the topic of his latest (‘note the size and fairness of the boy. Mention, more than once, the strawberry-shaped birthmark on the back of his knee’). It’s Foster who offers a useful gloss on the trope’s ideological appeal; attempting to present himself as a ‘native son’, distancing himself from failures like Henry Axam, he writes ‘the true pioneers, true children of the bush are always masters of themselves’.

McFarlane’s novel is engaging not just with a tradition of lost child stories, but also with the critical discourse around them and she lays waste to the tropes of white innocence on which these stories depend. In a sense, there are two novels here. First, an agile comedy of manners, in which the omniscient narrator slips coyly between characters, exposing the hypocrisies and sustaining fictions of settler heroism. (McFarlane has a keen eye for the minutiae of social hierarchies; consider the ‘excruciating grace’ with which proud German settler Wilhelmina Baumann receives Joanna, the matriarch of the first pioneering family, on the verandah of her homestead, consoling herself that she was the first in town to have wooden floors.) Beneath the clamor, these petty feuds of provenance, are the untold and yet implicit stories of the Indigenous people – maids working for rations, trackers whose wages have gone unpaid – that these settlers have dispossessed.

Though the core of McFarlane’s novel proceeds in third-person narration, it is interspersed with extracts from voices typically excluded from the canon, although these passages play with presumptions of authenticity. In ‘Tales of the Yadliawarda and Irish housemaids’ (framed as first-person statements made to a ‘scientific gentleman’ who wants a ‘story for their book’), the Irish housemaid recounts an ostensibly Indigenous story about ‘lost little ones’ (McFarlane pointedly has her confused about the details); Billy’s sister Arranyinha offers a tale of the Pied Piper that she heard from Joanna Axam, her white employer. It’s a clever conceit that enables McFarlane to allude to Arranyinha’s own stolen children, without these stories being assimilated to the emotional grain of her novel. But McFarlane makes a contentious exception within the narrative proper, writing the character of Billy Rough in a close third-person that grants access to his interiority.

In interviews, McFarlane has expressed that she made a choice to inhabit only the perspective of an Indigenous character who is not participating in his traditional culture. Though Billy perceives the land as ‘dense with motion’, his perspective betrays the cost of his estrangement; if it weren’t for Henry, he would ‘speak to dust-storms’. Refusing to track Denny into country he is not permitted to go, Billy, rather than passively weathering Mathew’s violent rage, makes a firm, unequivocal assertion of a boundary. While McFarlane has taken evident care to avoid, and also to self-reflexively thematise, trespass on areas of traditional, and thus potentially sacred, knowledge, I think we need to be wary of any implication that an Indigenous subjectivity which is more entangled in settler culture might be more confidently approached by a white writer – a notion that risks echoing the very logic of assimilation that McFarlane is seeking to critique.

Though her self-imposed limit on characterisation indicates an appropriate epistemic humility, we need to keep in our sights the fact that some of the most profound differences between settler and Indigenous experience may be structural rather than narrowly ‘cultural’. Advising non-Indigenous writers to avoid representing Indigenous characters, Melissa Lucashenko has cited the relationship between slave and plantation owner to get at the dynamic of colonialism: the slave necessarily knows far more of the plantation owner than the plantation owner will ever bother to know of him. McFarlane ultimately takes the tack of portraying this very dynamic. Though Billy is not ‘the best tracker in the district’, he has spent years studying the whims of white men, navigating their insecurities and anticipating their petty, potentially lethal flares of resentment. In one scene he painstakingly nurses Sergeant Foster’s ego through a cricket lesson, but it is the perspective Billy provides on men who imagine they are more ‘equitable’ that feels fresh. As Billy wryly notes, ‘Mathew rarely refers to his blackness. He seems generally to operate on the principle that the less he acknowledges it, the more likely it is to go away.’

McFarlane knows her representation of Billy could never be that impossible and loaded thing: ‘authentic’. Working to undermine that very idea, her novel is full of predatory white artists seeking to appropriate Indigenous experience, and includes a pointedly condescending letter to the editor that presumes to speak on a tracker’s behalf. But as a character, Billy works convincingly within the narrative as a man whose sense of agency fluctuates as he negotiates between settler and Indigenous worlds.

While thinking about this novel, I was nagged by a phrase from an old review of Remembering Babylon, where Catherine Kenneally, writing on Malouf’s desire to ‘respectfully’ incorporate ‘elements of blackfella perception among our visions of the land’, suggested that in ‘choosing Gemmy, whose double-vision is muddled and inarticulate [he] avoids blasphemy’. From the very first line of the novel, ‘the boy met a god by the hollow tree’, Denny brings Malouf to mind. He is given some of the novel’s most impressionistic passages – passages redolent of the heightened perceptions of Gemmy Fairley (Malouf’s marooned English cabin boy raised by Indigenous people), who can access a reality invisible to the settlers. Though Denny’s impressions can be loosely attributed to the imaginings of a dehydrated child, they give voice to an ambivalent desire to wander beyond the settler enclosure, with its habitual ways of seeing. Throughout the novel, various non-Indigenous characters’ perceptions quicken, welling up into an epiphanic mode, yet McFarlane ultimately reins them in. The fiery sunsets that both Karl and le petit prophet Denny perceive as god-sent, personal, are revealed, late in the novel, to be the effect of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. Denny is only six, and has not yet parsed his impressions into genres, but it emerges that he has cobbled together his own cosmology – a mix of Bible stories, Greek myths, his father’s tales of the Hooky man from East Anglian fens, and stories told to him by Billy. Significantly, McFarlane does not have Billy sentimentally equip the child with Indigenous skills at reading the landscape. Conflating the fiery red sunset with the lanterns carried by his trackers, Denny imagines that he has angered the gods, that they have stepped out from the sun and are hunting him ‘with fire in their hands’. Billy, for his part, would like to correct Denny’s misapprehension, whispering in his ‘secret ear: nothing but us two searching you out, nothing coming for you, nothing looking at or thinking of or paying attention to you, just us’.

It remains one of the tired ironies of Australian literature that a nation with a long history of stealing Indigenous children has been so obsessed with narratives where settlers lose their own. A glimpse into the canon reveals some of the insane feats of sublimation at play. When the heroine of Norah of Billabong finds a lost child some fifteen months after she has gone missing, the child is in the company of ‘Black Mary’. Rather than credit the child’s survival to this Indigenous woman’s care, the author proceeds to code the whole episode as a kidnapping. Alluding to such sleights of hand, McFarlane writes, ‘when Billy was taken by his elders – “kidnapped,” according to Henry – for his first initiation into sacred law, Henry was furious.’ Countering Henry’s view with her plot, McFarlane has her own lost child cross the path of a white couple who, instead of returning the terrified Denny to his parents, take him to an abandoned homestead. This unsettling interlude, an allusion to White’s The Tree of Man (1973), where the Parkers take a lost child home and he flees before morning, suggests the artifice of settler attempts to make a ‘home’.

The notion that home, for the children of empire, is an act of imaginative will, recurs throughout McFarlane’s fiction. In her debut novel The Night Guest (2013), an elderly white woman, the daughter of medical missionaries who spent her childhood in Fiji, has her New South Wales beach-house invaded by a woman she believes to be Fijian. But, for Ruth, Frida is simply non-white; as with the tiger she imagines stalking her house (generic Kipling-esque fiend pulled from the Victorian nursery), Ruth is haunted in the imprecise manner of a senile, deteriorating mind. In McFarlane’s collection, The High Places (2016), stories of modest Australians struggling to keep up with their glamourous cultural ‘superiors’ were resolved with a consoling return to snug houses with automatic lights set to deter interlopers. But there’s a sense in McFarlane’s fiction that the real threat comes from within – whether it’s our internalised cringe or a ‘postcolonial’ conscience. In The Sun Walks Down, ‘home’ is a notion that becomes increasingly troubled for Denny – a place, even, of terror. Thwarting the traditional progress of lost child stories, where the white child’s innocence comes to stand for the innocence of the colonial project, Denny’s heightened visions enable McFarlane to arrive at this moral clarity.

Writing into a genre that inspires suspicious readings, McFarlane does not risk being subtle. Moving between the perspectives of her East Anglian farmers, Cambridge-educated vicars, and Swedish artists, she mounts a thorough indictment of the settler imagination: the myriad enactments and justifications of terra nullius (paradisiacal gardens and invocations of manifest destiny); metaphorical attempts to cast the land as primitive and hostile (the ‘cannibal sun’); failed runs at the Romantic and consoling turns to the Gothic (‘the sun sinking, holy, over the ruins of nature’); overarching it all, a recurring sense of ‘exile’ from a ‘promised land’. For the reader who imagines these modes of representation as safely historical (as Karl thinks, ‘sublimity is going out of fashion’), McFarlane ensures contemporary resonances are harder to deny. Bess and Karl’s game of irreverently renaming the streets of the Australian colonies (‘Dog’s Arse Boulevard … Shitboot Lane’) and dubbing a shabby house hung with laundry ‘the Parthenon’ could be drawn from any Australian comedy night, where assumptions of cultural inferiority are routinely alchemised into an ironised pride.

Despite the contemporary reverberations in an historical novel, McFarlane resists flagrant presentism. Subverting the settler trope of the lonely wife, vulnerable to sexual predation while her husband is away – a trope of white innocence long used to justify violence toward men excluded from the white imaginary – McFarlane places Minna Baumann, the Constable’s wife, in the midst of a sexual awakening. Yet though she paints a vivid evocation of this eighteen-year-old’s indiscriminate desire, she resists modernising her as a sex-positive pioneer. With her portrait of solipsistic Minna who imagines ‘her body is the beginning of everything’, McFarlane has her sights set on a long tradition of texts (from Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock and Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 film Walkabout to Madeleine Watts’s 2020 novel The Inland Sea) that posit a pretty young white woman as the epitome of desirability against the backdrop of the Australian landscape. As Minna moves through town, imagining ‘the streets belong to her’, McFarlane begins unravelling a trope that enacts its own form of colonial possession. Slighted by an Afghan cameleer’s indifference to her charms, an enraged Minna threatens him with the force of the law.

A character’s ideology can, of course, be flagged as suspect, without depriving them of their variegated humanity, and for the reader to invest, McFarlane must first give amplitude to her characters’ hopes and desires. Some characters are more angular than others, but the narration’s waltz between poignancy and parody can be supple. Young Cissy, for instance, is at once generic and endearingly idiosyncratic. With Mathew and Mary Wallace, McFarlane balances a critique of their sustaining fictions with a compassionate portrait of a relationship that, in its intimacy and distance, is reminiscent of Stan and Amy Parker, White’s own pioneering couple in The Tree of Man. But McFarlane has always been more Carey than White, and she proceeds here as she did in The High Places – nudging the national myths with absurdist feints, deflating romantic epiphanies, skewering pretensions in a manner that calls on the precise social comedy of Barbara Pym. McFarlane is no stranger to tonal complexity. Even as her debut, essentially a tale of elder abuse, edged into the chilling territory of Celia Dale’s A Helping Hand (1966), there was a note of dark hilarity to the proceedings, a touch of colonial farce. Here, in her second novel, the decision not to affect an even, elegiac tone works to denaturalise any implications, common in settler fiction, of historical inevitability. The tone also avoids the air of authorial heroism that the revisionist novel is vulnerable to.

Another recent critical revision of the lost child story, Catherine Noske’s debut The Salt Madonna (2020), was largely well-judged, but the inclusion of a character narrator who repeatedly apologised for her failure to intervene in the events of the narrative gave the novel a hand-wringing, absolution-seeking quality. Staring down this fate, McFarlane includes a late, supplementary chapter, where Bess is called before a ‘Court of both Public and Private Opinion’ to make an account of her questionable actions – namely, she ‘wilfully did prolong and make use of the suffering of others in order to facilitate the execution of her art’. As Bess worms her way from a cursory admission of guilt, through an overwrought justification, into a defiant retraction of responsibility, McFarlane moves from critiquing lost child stories to satirising the vein of settler apologetics in which her own novel is located.

It’s a histrionic passage, and the most explicit rent in the novel’s fabric, the author unveiling herself through overt anachronism: justifying herself with an allusion to maternal abandonment, Bess avers ‘but it’s still the nineteenth century, and we don’t yet have the language for that’. It’s as though, defeated by the impossible torque of her own project, McFarlane is conceding the limit of her ability to right wrongs from within, to give voice to Indigenous characters, without committing more crimes of appropriation. The moment acknowledges a fundamental asymmetry to her settler novel that all the lashings of self-reflexivity and narrative agility, the mobile undermining of settler knowledge, can’t undo.

The Sun Walks Down is a novel that knows about the luridness of self-deceit, but it’s possible to be a knowing novel and a foolhardy one. An arresting mixture of ambition and overreach, McFarlane’s lost child story might in time be seen as part of a longer swerve in the settler canon, when it pulled its reins in, and had a terse, side-of-the-mouth conversation with itself, as it cantered along.

Works Cited

Nicholas Ferns, ‘Manifest Destiny crosses the Pacific: The utility of American expansion in Australia, 1850-1901’, Australasian Journal of American Studies 34.2 (2015): 28-43.

Elspeth Tilley, ‘A natural(ised) home for the Lintons: Lost children and indigenising discourse in Mary Grant Bruce’s and John Marsden’s young adult fiction’, 1.1 Australian Studies (2009).