The Timeless Land by Eleanor Dark (an Australian classic)

I really wanted to love this book. It is an Australian classic and it is my Nanna's favourite book. In fact, she lent it to me to read. She has been re-reading it since she was a girl, so I am very pleased that she lent it to me to read.

What I do love about this book is the author, Eleanor Dark. She is the daughter of Dowell Phillip O'Reilly, a politician who moved the first motion in favour of women's suffrage in NSW. She and her husband were true 'left-wing' people (for middle/upper class white people) in the mid 20th century. They considered themselves very liberal which I love. Their son has turned their family home in the Blue Mountains into a writers centre which is amazing.


The Timeless Land is a piece of historical fiction that is totally before its time. It was written in 1941 and is about the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, the subsequent 'settlement' of Australia and the exploration of the lands surrounding their landing site. The story alternates from the perspective of the Aboriginals and the English, and we get the perspective of many different individuals within each group. This works really well because it means that the reader is given quite an in depth look into the different experiences of those that were there during this difficult time.

What really made this book before its time, is that it considers the settlement of Australia from the Aboriginals perspective, and it isn't good. We see the Aboriginals land, culture and basic health systematically stripped away from them as the English slowly encroach upon their lands. Everything they believed in, everything they drew their strength from is slowly destroyed at the hands of the English and the damage is irretrievable.

The emphasis of the book is really about the cultural experiences and differences between each group, which are so wide that it increasingly becomes clear that they cannot be overcome. The differences are so fundamental that it goes deeper than either group not being able to communicate with the other. It goes right to the heart of their respective cultures and belief systems.

It was heart wrenching to see the English kidnap Bennilong (the main Aboriginal character) and 'civilise' him. He is taught to eat English food, dress like an Englishman and speak English. What Dark does so well with her depiction of this kidnap is to really explore the complexities of the relationship between the Aboriginals and the English. The outcome of Bennilong's 'civilisation' is just sad (I won't spoil the end), but Bennilong himself is thankful for his civilisation. He justifies the bad things in his mind with reference to what the white men do - "if they drink it, it must be good". Dark is really able to get her finger on the deeper issues.

I was also moved by the way in which Dark portrayed the women in her story. Violence was a part of the every day existence of both the Aboriginal and the white women, and Dark really explores this reality, again showing an understanding of the complexities that would have existed. Violence was almost a cultural experience for the Aboriginal women, it seemed as though it was considered part of their role as women of the tribe to be assaulted by the men, they met it stoically and never questioned it. Violence was just as common for the white women, except in a more sexual way that the Aboriginal women. They experienced formal violence as punishment for their misdeeds, and suffered at the hands of male officers and convicts. Having said, as much as the white women commonly experienced violence, it was not something they accepted as part of their culture in the way the Aboriginal women did. They had no support.

The prose was lyrical and evocative, particularly in the way in which the landscape was described, and the Aboriginals relationship with the land. Descriptions like these took my breath away:
"Silence ruled this land. Out of silence mystery comes, and magic, and the delicate awareness of unreasoning things. The black men learned from it, having no other teacher, neither hunger nor danger, and what they learned was different from the learning of mankind in other lands where famine threatened, and wild animals, fierce and powerful, thrust upon it a feverish development of its only weapon - thought."
and
"Here was unfailing nourishment. The quiet land was illimitable, unknown, a mystery beyond the tribal borders. The black men's awareness of it was like the awareness of a seed for the changing season, of a cicada for the breaking heat of day, of the shellfish, sensitive to the wash of sea-water over its rock pool. Magic was all about them, entering their lives, their bodies, bringing birth or death".

Now you may have noticed that I said that I wanted to love this story. The truth is that I didn't love it. The best parts were toward the beginning, where the story from the perspective of the Aboriginal inhabitants of our land before the white people arrived. But once the white people arrived, I just got a bit bored to be honest. My emotions weren't stirred as much as I would have liked them to be. In the end, it was that boredom and lack of interest that outweighed everything else.

I should add that this book is the first in a trilogy, but I don't think that I will be reading the rest of them.

Summary

What kind of read is this?
A big read, one you need to put time into. Dense.


Do I recommend this book?
I really want to because it is my Nanna's favourite, but I can't really. I suppose I recommend it if you have a real interest in Australian history.


Do I recommend that you buy this book?
No. 

Star Rating

4.5 / 8

Alright, but there's no need to prioritise it. 


Book Details: Paperback, 620 pages, Imprint Classics, published by Collins/Angus & Robertson Publishers Australia, published in 1990

21 comments

  1. Can I recommend that you read The Politics of Suffering by Peter Sutton? It's easy to read - a collection of essays.

    The patterns of culture that Dark wrote about were reality for many Aboriginal women and continue to be.

    Sutton's book connects violence with availability of resources and uses archaeological evidence as well as 40 years of fieldwork to support his argument.

    P.s. the Australian Book Bloggers Directory lists you as being in the NT.

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  2. That's what I loved about this book, the reality of violence for ABoriginal women. I loved that Dark could capture this, and that is why I think that she was before her time.

    Thanks for the suggestion on the Sutton book, I will add it to my wish list right now and keep my eye out for it.

    I will also change the state, thanks for bringing that to my attention :-)

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  3. I think Dark saw first hand what some -not all- Aboriginal communities can be like.

    I sometimes wish I could talk publicly about what I see and experience first hand. But I can't at the moment because of my professional role.

    And the so-called 'Aboriginal' organisations and all the random leeches who live in communities making a living off Aboriginal people and tax payers' money.

    No wonder I'm going gray.

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  4. Isn't it funny how a book can be considered an Australian classic and yet I don't remember every hearing of it before!

    BTW, suspect that this book was written some time after 1041.

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  5. It certainly must be a book totally before its time if it was written in 1041!

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  6. Thanks for that anonymous! You will find typos all through my posts so try not to let them bother you!

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  7. I disagree, i thought it was a great book!

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  8. That's great anonymous, I am glad that you loved it. What did you love?

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