Remembering Babylon by David Malouf, is based in a remote town in Queensland, in the mid 1800’s. The town is largely made up of Scottish immigrants and due to the isolation from the larger settlements on the coast, the inhabitants of the town have a very “us and them” mentality – towards anyone and everyone. At the heart of the story, is Gemmy Fairley. As a 13 year old cabin boy on a ship, he is cast ashore off the coast of Australia and left for dead. Found by a tribe of Aboriginals who eventually accept him as one of their own, he becomes a new person, shaking off his European self and becoming one of the native people in every way possible except for the colour of his skin. Sixteen years later, Gemmy hurtles out of the bush and finds himself back in the company of white people and back in “civilisation”. Taken in by one of the families in the town, he is expected to fit right in. But after living for so long with the indigenous people, he has virtually forgotten everything about being European, including the language. The strangeness of the situation makes some of the townspeople believe that there is no innocence to Gemmy being there. They believe that he has been sent by the natives to infiltrate the town and it is this belief which creates fear and disharmony between the residents of the town. A fear that is completely unwarranted and makes people do terrible things and make you wonder whether they were thinking of doing those things that very morning as you looked them in the eye.
This book is perfect example of the irrational fear and aversion that people (white people in particular) have for those that are different and it shows that this fear does not only come from the colour of a person’s skin. Humans are creatures of habit, so it is only natural that anything different or out of the ordinary would make us somewhat afraid. Gemmy had white skin, but people were immediately suspicious of him because he didn’t act in the way that it is “natural” for a white person to act. In the eyes of these settlers, he is as good as black and should therefore be treated as such. I think it is interesting to note however, that when the indigenous people found him, they paid little attention to the colour of his skin and more attention to the fact that he was someone in need. It really made me think about what this country is like today and in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that different. It’s just more diverse.
This is a beautifully written book and it is no wonder that it has been nominated for and won, some very prestigious awards. There is little dialogue throughout, but the story is so well written that it doesn’t need a lot of dialogue. In fact, I think lots of dialogue would have ruined this book slightly. I’m not sure if the irrational fear of the human mind is the entire point of this book, but to me it was the thing that stood out the most. Even if this sort of story isn’t your cup of tea, give it a go. If only to read a piece of great writing.
RATING – 8 out of 10. I didn’t love the ending, but I think it was fitting.
WHO SHOULD READ THIS – I don’t think that there’s one particular group of people that would enjoy it more than others. I think it has a little bit to offer everyone.
WHO YOU’LL LOVE – Lachlan was probably the stand out for me. One of the few people in the story who can see things for what they really are, despite his young age.
FAVOURITE QUOTE – It was the mixture of monstrous strangeness and unwelcome likeness that made Gemmy Fairley so disturbing to them, since at any moment he could show either one face or the other; as if he were always standing there at one of those meetings, but in his case willingly and the encounter was an embrace.