Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman

If you’ve coming looking for a thorough and comprehensive review of Claire G. Coleman’s debut, Terra Nullius, move along. I, like others, are saying nothing about what happens in this book for fear of spoiling it.

The blurb reveals that a boy, Jacky, is on the run. His story is told against the broad backdrop of a land where the ‘Settlers’ struggle to bring the restless ‘Natives’ into line in a harsh, unforgiving environment that we recognise as Australia.

Strictly speaking, Terra Nullius is speculative fiction. However, in the context of the treatment of Indigenous Australians, the book provides a reflection of the past, a commentary on the present and a cautionary tale for the future. And therein lies its strength – it’s not ‘speculative’, it’s real.

Person to person we are stronger than them, faster than them and we have the advantage of local knowledge… Where they beat us consistently is in technology and the unrelenting, merciless, largely impersonal, application of force.

By using the historical experience of many Indigenous cultures – that they never knew they had an ‘enemy’ until that enemy was upon them – Coleman demonstrates that sadly, little has changed. The enemies might be different, their methods might be different, but the lack of regard and respect, and the need for dominance and power will always remain. And from another perspective, the terror is in not knowing your enemy.

We are not being invaded, we are being colonised, and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. When they first arrived we did not know whether they  would be coming to invade or coming in peace.

I had a few minor quibbles – some elements of the story were repetitive and while the sections on human reproduction were creative, I’m a bit tired of the speculative obsession with where babies come from! But aside from these minor issues, Coleman’s style is consistent and evocative, and her use of ‘archival documents’ at the beginning of each chapter gave the book rich perspective. Importantly, Coleman’s more ‘extreme’ characters – such as Sister Bagra, in charge of a Native ‘orphanage’ – are frighteningly familiar, and it these elements of the story that will linger –

Sister Bagra had never bothered to learn the noises the Natives made instead of speaking; she could not see the point…so close to extinction…Kicking each door once for emphasis, the sheet metal emitting a yell like a cross between thunder overhead and a church bell, she stormed away…she did not consider the Natives people at all.

3/5 A tricky one to rate – speculative fiction is simply not my thing however I appreciate that Terra Nullius is well-written and thought-provoking. It will have a good shot at the Stella Prize.



11 responses

  1. Yes, it’s a marvellous work isn’t it. Here in WA it’s the only book being talked about. As you say, the way the story’s structured really makes you think about all colonizations, not just the British in Australia (today I’m listening to the Dalai Lama’s brother on the Chinese in Tibet). I think also that it is one of many books that demonstrates that ‘speculative’ elements are becoming mainstream, not genre. I think they have been let in by the general acceptance of magic realism.

    • Again, without spoilers, I was impressed by the way that you read the first half of the book from one perspective and the second half through different eyes – it’s very clever and, as you point out, shifts the emphasis from the speculative detail of the story to the overall narrative arc. I haven’t read the full Stella longlist (yet!) but this book seems timely and has a much-needed message – it might just win.

    • I thought the structure was so clever – any book that has a “Whaaaaat?!” moment, where I turn back to check what I’ve read always grabs me but this one in particular because it turned so much of what I’d read (and ASSUMED) on its head.

      • Yes, because we read what we expect to read. In my case, I read certain anachronistic bits and promptly rationalised them to fit into what I was expecting to see… and then that moment of revelation was superb!

  2. I read about this in a Guardian round up of speculative fiction and really want to read it. Chances of persuading my local library to buy it might be slim. They weren’t able to purchase Kim Scott’s Taboo for me, but that might be because it isn’t getting a UK release.

  3. I’m reading this atm (I’m past the twist) and I’m really enjoying it. Going to try and finish it off today but thinking of reviewing it already gives me a headache! You did a great job in talking about it without actually giving anything away.

    • I think the reviews are either all or nothing with the spoilers! I’ve just had the same issue with another book – some reviews say nothing and others go into great detail. I never want to be the bearer of spoilers!

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