review by Enza Gandolfo
In the prologue to her debut novel, Beneath the Grace of Clouds, Janie Conway-Herron introduces herself as a collector: ‘I collect lost stories, the ones that people forget or the ones that people know but don’t tell.’ In the first of many stories that follows, Conway-Herron tells us of her interaction with a Sydney taxi driver who asks her, ‘Where’re you from?’ When she responds, ‘Sydney’, he remains unsatisfied and unconvinced:
In response to his further probing Conway-Herron reveals that there is some question around the identity of one of her grandmothers, a secret she hasn’t yet discovered:
Where do you come from? This is a question that those of us who come from migrant and refugee families – even though we and even our parents might have been born in Australia – are used to being asked. In Australia, it is a common question and most of us answer with some reference to our ancestral birthplace. ‘My parents are Sicilian, but I was born here,’ is my stock answer. For Conway-Herron knowing where you come from means more than just knowing the name of your birthplace or your parents’ birthplace, it means knowing and understanding your history. For her a sense of self, of place, of belonging depends on coming to terms with history and with the stories that have shaped us as individuals and as nations. Both the ones we choose to tell and the ones we try to hide or forget.
Beneath the Grace of Clouds tells the story of three extraordinary women, each one forced to confront the challenges resulting from our violent colonial history. These women could have become victims; certainly other people, mostly men, often had more power over their lives than they did, but they never give up.
This is a hybrid novel: part fact, part fiction. We are told before we begin the novel that this is ‘a work of fiction’, but one of the three narratives that interweave through the novel is written in the first person voice of autobiography. The character and the author share the same name. What is fiction and what is fact? Conway-Herron is skillfully playing with our desire to know the truth about history, about life, and in so doing forces us to question the histories and the stories that we have inherited.
The other two narratives, while based on extensive archival research, are clearly fiction. One is the story of Elizabeth, an English woman who came out as a convict on the First Fleet and the other of Booron, a Wallamatagul woman, living in and around Sydney cove in the 1780s. These two narratives are written in the third person but their voices are just as strong and individual as Janie’s. By capturing the detail of the women’s everyday lives, their desires and their griefs, Conway-Herron transports us into their worlds.
We meet Booron in 1787 when she is a young girl in a hurry to grow up. The adult women of her clan have left her in charge of a younger child while they go fishing. Instead of watching the child, she watches the women and dreams of the day she will be old enough to go with them. The child playing on his own nearly drowns. In a poignant passage that anticipates much of what is yet to come, one of the older women says to her:
We follow Booron as the impact of white settlement on her people and her country becomes increasingly evident. Soon disease is rife and many are dying. When Booron gets sick, her family carry her into the white settlement hopeful the ‘ghosts’ who have bought the disease can save Booron’s life. Her life is saved and for a while she lives among the colonists, even meeting and becoming ‘friends’ with Elizabeth, but her first responsibility is to her people and her land and she knows she must leave:
Elizabeth is a child in London when her narrative opens. Though times are difficult and many are destitute, her parents are making just enough money to live but everything changes when Elizabeth’s father dies and she has to go to work. Along with her friend Constance, Elizabeth begins to steal things from the factory to raise money to fulfill their dream to one day own a clothing shop. Elizabeth is caught and sentenced to ‘seven years transportation beyond the seas’. Elizabeth’s narrative traces her life as a convict woman in the colony. We see her struggle with loneliness, with exploitation, with various other hardships; we see through her eyes the life in the settlement and the relationship with indigenous Australians:
In the first chapter of Janie’s narrative, she is a child surrounded by both her grandmothers. Her maternal grandmother Lossie is descendant from Norwegians. Her paternal grandmother tells everyone she is French, but some 20 years after her death, Janie discovers that her grandmother’s real name was Elise March, not Alivis de Faye, and that she was not French. We follow Janie as she grows up in 1950s, 60s and 70s Australia, as she begins to question her background, as she becomes aware of racism and gets involved in Rock against Racism, as she increases her awareness of the plight of indigenous Australians and the consequences of our colonial past:
Janie’s narrative moves between her research, her activism and her personal life as a mother, wife, lover and friend. But these three aspects are never separate for Janie; the personal is always political and political often becomes very personal. This narrative also provides an insight into Rock against Racism, an important movement in Australia in the 80s that has rarely been written about.
In Beneath the Grace of Clouds, Conway-Herron takes on the difficult and complex issues arising from Australia’s colonial history but this is not a novel that wallows in guilt or blame. By situating indigenous and non-indigenous stories and histories alongside each other, Conway-Herron highlights our interdependence.
In 2006 in the middle of some of the history debates that arose around Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, Stella Clarke wrote in The Australian:
Clarke may well have been talking about Beneath the Grace of Clouds. In this novel, history is lived, made and messed up by people just like us. It reminds us to consider the difficulties faced by both the indigenous Australians and the English, especially those who arrived as convicts. By combining the historical narratives with the contemporary ones it also reminds us that mistakes of history have consequences in the present and it is our responsibility to act for change.
Janie Conway-Herron is a senior lecturer in Creative Writing at Southern Cross University. Beneath the Grace of Clouds is her first novel. It is an engaging, brave and sensitively rendered work that challenges each of us to question the stories we have inherited.
Dr Enza Gandolfo is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Victoria University. Her most recent book is a novel, Swimming (Vanark Press 2009). Enza is also the reviews editor for TEXT.
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Vol 15 No 1 April 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy