Secrets from the dust by George Hamilton

This epic novel effectively charts Australia’s shame through the fictional life of a mixed race girl who is taken from her Aboriginal parents, renamed Margaret, and spends the rest of her life between identities and cultures.

It’s powerful stuff, but then the effective kidnapping of Aboriginal/ mixed race children who were then fostered out to white people is an emotive issue and not one that many modern Australians are that comfortable talking about.  Which is why a novel is such a good way to present the issues.

The novel covers a vast time span. It’s a shame that the details are a bit flimsy on this – I wasn’t clear till near the end exactly what time period we were talking about, and Margaret’s age is never clearly expressed. These small details would have helped to fix in the reader’s mind a context which would have been a benefit when the novel jumps about (as it does), sometimes years pass in the middle of a chapter.  This can be frustrating and one can lose track of exactly where one is in the story and life journey of Margaret as a result. These are  small issues that a structural edit could sort out, but are understandable perhaps given the enormity of the task the writer sets himself in covering all this ground.  However, the anthropological strength more than compensates for the novel’s slight structural weaknesses.

Because the real strength and interest in this novel is that it is about identity. Both personal and social identity and how they are constructed and manipulated.  One is forced to consider how changing names and cultural affiliations can affect individuals. The definition of Aborigine is seen as fluid  throughout.  The characters within the story all struggle with a definition, although for everyone it is near a term of abuse and for many even touching an ‘Abbo’ is seen as ‘dirty.’ The stigma and the desire for white skin is reminiscent of the caste system in India.

Margaret is brutally taken from her own culture and her parents attempts to follow and reclaim her are futile, though heartfelt.  As she grows, Margaret has to deny her culture in order to try and develop an identity, while effectively always being denied full access to the culture she has been ‘adopted’ into.

At one point Anne (Margaret’s foster mother) redefines Margaret as Southern European in order to get her an education. Anne herself as a £10 Pom has suffered some of the same dislocation that Margaret endures. Though Anne chose her path.  Which does not mean she is any happier in her life choice.  Social expectations and personal misunderstandings are drawn with bleakness and the isolation of many characters is explored throughout the novel. The role of religion and the repression of sexual mores is also clearly expressed.

There is plenty of darkness in the picture of isolation drawn of the rural outback in which much of the novel is set and the lives eked out there by the white farmers who live by contrasting principles to the Aboriginals whom they have displaced. The whites are at one point described as ‘back to front’ people and the anthropological insight into both peoples is well drawn and interesting.  When the setting moves to Sydney, there is the sense that the same old problems are just shown in a different relief in an urban setting. The struggle for identity is fundamentally the same.

Even if you are aware of the racism against Aborigines in the post war period, it’s still a shocking story in its directness and this is the novel’s greatest strength. While of course the story hangs round the character of Margaret, there is a much bigger story being told. And it’s a story that everyone should be aware of so I commend the author for tackling this vast and difficult task.

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

Available in Kindle format 

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