It’s been a few weeks since the BookWorms met up for our July book club, but I particularly wanted to write something about Nicole Watson’s The Boundary since this was the book I selected for our collective year of the Australian Women Writers Reading and Reviewing Challenge. I chose The Boundary from a list compiled by Anita Heiss of her favourite works by Indigenous Australian women writers over at the Australian Women Writer’s blog. I haven’t read nearly enough writing by Australia’s First Peoples and I saw this as a opportunity to begin changing that. Specifically, I chose The Boundary because it was set in Brisbane around West End, South Brisbane, and the city, locations that most of us in the book club are familiar with. I confess, too, that I wasn’t entirely sure how everyone would respond to a more obviously didactic choice, so I took refuge in the fact that The Boundary is effectively in the crime/mystery and supernatural genres. I don’t know if I was over-thinking all of this, I do have a tendency to over-think most things, but I’ve had enough rude awakenings, where perfectly nice people turn out to believe the most ridiculous apocryphal tales about Indigenous Australians, that I felt justly nervous about making my selection.
The Boundary centres on an investigation into the murder of of Justice Bruce Brosnan. Brosnan has just dismissed a native title claim by the Corrowa People over Meston Park, located on the old native curfew boundary of the city. While there is no immediate connection between the judge’s murder and his ruling, it becomes an avenue of inquiry pursued by the investigating police detectives looking into Brosnan’s life. The key characters in The Boundary emerge out of this premise. In the first instance we meet Detective Sergeant Jason Matthews and his partner, Detective Senior Sergeant Andrew Higgins, who are charged with investigating the judge’s murder. Matthews is an Indigenous man who has never engaged much with his heritage, while Higgins is a old-school Queensland police officer, responsible for his share of brutalities towards prisoners in custody and boiling with resentment towards his Indigenous colleague. Soon we meet Miranda Eversely, the lawyer representing her people’s claim in the court, and her family, including her activist father, Charlie, and Auntie Ethel, whose assertion of Corrowa identity is also rejected by the judge. On the other side of the bench from Miranda, is Dick Payne, the instructing solicitor for the Crown and, as Miranda describes him: ‘One of their own, he bludgeons native title claims, seemingly with ease’. Finally, amongst an ensemble of characters, there is Lesley Tagem, the Queensland Premier’s Senior Indigenous Adviser.
On the very first page of The Boundary the centrality of my perspective as part of the ethnic majority in Australia was knocked off kilter. The scene is that of the murdered judge’s house and Higgins is quizzing Matthews about the identity of the artist of a painting on Brosnan’s wall. Matthews doesn’t know, so Higgins smugly informs him that it is the work of Emily Kngwarreye, ‘”…one of the most successful Aboriginal artists ever.”‘ Following this, Higgins asserts his prowess as that of ‘”a man of many talents”‘. There’s another scene later, when the detectives visit the judge’s neighbour, Rebecca Collis. Upon meeting Detective Sergeant Matthews, she assesses him and declares, ‘”I think Aborigines can achieve whatever they put their minds to.”‘ and,'”I went to school with an Aboriginal boy. What was his name… .”‘ The second scene portrays a very familiar kind of condescension; it’s the kind of thing a well-meaning person, oblivious to everyday structural disadvantage, might say. It’s the old, ‘some of my best friends are …’ defence against the implication of any personal prejudice while failing to acknowledge the privilege of Whiteness. But it’s the first scenario that struck me most powerfully, because it challenged me. Higgins’s assertion that he knows about Indigenous art, more than an Indigenous person, made me think about how often educated, non-Indigenous people (I include myself here) brandish knowledge about Indigenous people as a kind of cultural capital. Higgins parades his credentials, not to seek any greater connection with his partner, but simply for his own self-image. And of course there’s no particular reason why Matthews should be able to recognise Kngwarreye’s work, in the same way that Higgins is probably unlikely to know every contemporary Anglo-Australian artist.
Nicole Watson’s ability to reveal different truths through the use of perspective is one of the most effective elements of her writing. One of these instances, which we discussed at the book club, was the difference between Miranda’s description of herself and Jason Matthews’ view of her. From very early in the novel, it’s clear Miranda doesn’t like herself much and she spends most of her non-working time rendering herself unconscious, drinking bottle after bottle of wine. Her alcoholism is the legacy of growing up with her father’s alcohol abuse after his wife’s death. Miranda often wakes up–at her desk, in Meston Park–smeared with blood and encrusted with other bodily fluids. There is much of the abject in Miranda’s self-image, thus, it comes as something of a shock to read Jason’s view of her: gone are the wrinkled clothes and alcohol-disfigured body, replaced by lush, feminine curves and the scent of exotic perfume; gone is the out-of-control, about-to-lose-her-job mess, replaced by an aloof, enigmatic, professional woman. As with most of the characters in The Boundary, the layering of perspectives makes Miranda the most wonderfully rendered character; she is deeply flawed, but she emerges out of a social and personal history, out of her interactions with others.
One of the temptations many of the BookWorms faced while reading The Boundary was to resist trying to match the characters with real-life Queensland political identities. Or perhaps that was just me. Before I made myself stop, I wondered whether Dick Payne was a kind of Noel Pearson figure, lauded by various politicians as a model Indigenous leader because of his conservative views on Aboriginal welfare. Others in the group wondered whether the Queensland Labor Premier in the novel was Wayne Goss or Peter Beattie, and was the up-and-coming Minister for Aboriginal Affairs based on Anna Bligh? The presence of the Kurilpa Bridge as part of the cityscape, however, complicated any neat alignment of the characters with serving politicians prior to 2009. Nevertheless, the Boundary Streets of Brisbane are real, and Meston Park is clearly Musgrave Park, the site of Daniel Yock’s death and Brisbane’s Aboriginal Tent Embassy.
Any effort on my part to completely deny the inextricable entwining of fact and fiction in The Boundary was further complicated by present-day Queensland politics. It was impossible not to marvel at Watson’s prescient inclusion of a police raid on the inhabitants of Meston Park, given the recent memory of the same action in Musgrave Park this past May. But perhaps it doesn’t require any particular divination to write such a scene when you’re an Indigenous person in Queensland. On this, a couple of the BookWorms commented that the Brisbane of The Boundary wasn’t recognisable to them and that the view of the politicians and police was utterly bleak. Here, again, Watson’s deftness at building a picture though perspective affords those of us who don’t experience Brisbane as an Indigenous person a valuable opportunity to glimpse what that might be like: to know that your very presence was contested at every turn and that, ultimately, neither the politicians nor the police are on your side.
There’s much in The Boundary that I haven’t elaborated on in this post (I won’t call it a review): the supernatural elements, the romance, the machinations and betrayals of those in power; I could go on. Overall, I think it’s an incredibly accomplished first novel, and any hesitations I had about that, were left behind with the Emily Kngwarreye painting on page one.