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In search of another narrative

By Shannon Burns
With ‘Taboo’, Kim Scott sketches out a new way of accepting our histories, and imagining our future.

Kim Scott has long combined probing critical observation with unabashedly generative storytelling and seductively defamiliarising prose. From the stinging urgency and playfulness of Benang to the complex – and at times slippery – lyricism of That Deadman Dance, Scott employs narrative strategies that are impeccably suited to the story he wants to tell. His novels also give the impression of uncommon urgency, not least because they counteract the wounding and disorienting gaps in their characters’ – and readers’ – lives, and because they tap into a latent cultural richness that should animate and excite us all.

Taboo (Picador Australia; $32.99) is bracing from its opening paragraph. Scott employs an (initially) enigmatic collective narrative voice:

Some of you may wish to imagine our decaying flesh, our shuffling tread and a collective moan emanating from our slack jaws – as if we were the undead, indeed. It was never like that, and we are hardly alone in having been clumsy, in having stumbled and struggled to properly speak and breathe and find our place again. But we were never hungry for human flesh or revenge of any kind.

We come to understand exactly who is speaking as the story develops – Scott is a gifted exponent of faint misdirection and gradual revelation. Taboo’s slightly puzzling and abrupt conclusion forces us to re-read the opening pages and contemplate the circular structure of the novel. Only then do we fully grasp how its shape fits Scott’s generative purpose.

Taboo shifts deftly between distinctive points of view while embracing multiple generic forms, from tragedy to farce. Scott flirts with the revenge or retribution tale – and the demand for clear endings and a satisfying comeuppance – while veering in another direction entirely. As his ghostly narrators explain, “Our people gave up on that Payback stuff long ago, because we always knew death is only one part of a story that is forever beginning …”

Instead, we’re offered Tilly Coolman – the young, resilient hero at Taboo’s centre, whose belated discovery of her heritage coincides with an uncanny repetition, when she is marked by the cruelties inflicted on her Noongar ancestors. Her task is to navigate those personal and historical wounds without being crippled by them. We also follow Gerald – a twin from the same Wirlomin Noongar mob – who has a history of alcoholism and violence, but yearns to discover his true self, and Dan Horton, who inherits a guilty family history, and struggles to negotiate a mutually enriching settlement with those who have been denied justice. All of these characters are distinguished by their willingness to try something different, to reach beyond the prevailing paralysis in search of another narrative.

The story gravitates around a massacre that has rendered the country “taboo” for its original inhabitants. That massacre followed a retribution killing, which followed a rape – and initiated a pattern of destructive alienation for the Noongar survivors and their descendants. But this grim, unresolvable history is offset by the curious events that bookend Taboo, a form of “magic in an empirical age”, which breathes life into a future whose “whole being is a smile”.

Taboo is, above all, a Creation (and re-Creation) story for modern times. It is packed with objects that seem – or pretend – to be inanimate before a phrase, or a spark, or a thunderous call brings them to life. It doesn’t reach the formal and stylistic heights that Scott scaled with his previous Miles Franklin–winning novels, but Taboo’s fluent treatment of an impossible subject and unforbidding moral seriousness make it just as important. Scott sketches the first stages of a different, and better, way of comporting ourselves – of relating to each other and our histories, and of imagining our future. What could be more vital than that?

Shannon Burns

Shannon Burns is a freelance writer and critic from Adelaide.

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