Storyland – Catherine McKinnon

I picked this book up from the bookshop because I saw it recommended for people who enjoyed David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (one of my faves).

Storyland is similar to Cloud Atlas in its structure – we start off with our protagonist in the year 1796, before skipping to another character in 1822, then to one in 1900, then to 1998 and then to the year 2033. Then, the story takes us back through the years to end in 1796 again. I like this style as it’s unconventional.

A really interesting convention McKinnon uses is her transition between stories. She ends halfway through a sentence, and then starts halfway through a sentence in the new story – but the sentences roll together. An example:

(Lola, 1900)

I see the eagle dive to the

Bel
1998

                                                 reeds in the lake and get something in its mouth, and and and when it flies back in the air, I can see a fish dangling from its beak.

This leads me to the weirdness of Bel’s story. She only ten years old so sees the world through the eyes of a child. And yet there’s something else unusual about her storytelling technique. Sometimes there are words doubled or trebled (and no, it’s not a typo). Plus, she has some strange mannerisms, like being unable to keep secrets. It makes me think she may have autism or something, though this isn’t explicitly enough displayed in the story. I’m left guessing about that.

The beautiful thing I absolutely LOVE about Storyland is that all the stories are tied together by the location, near Wollongong in NSW. There are locations and objects that crop up across all the stories. And, I also love how McKinnon talks easily and openly about indigenous Australians. I’ve never before seen a book deal with it like this before.

What becomes evident is that indigenous Australians have a strong tie to the geographical location of the book, as well as the land and the elements. There’s something unspoken which I can’t put my finger on which elevates Aboriginal people so they seem wiser than white settlers, and seem to know what’s coming. (A gentle nod, I suppose, towards the truth of white invasion and the plundering of indigenous lands and ways of life.)

A few excerpts I loved:

(Will, 1796)

When I first learnt my letters I stumbled over those that would not jiggle together. I whittled away at them until one day I shaped a word. I felt so shiny with myself for having a whole word in my grasp. But a day later, when Uncle Hilton (a stage player like Mama) gave me one of his scripts to read, I became gloomy, and was truly a most miserable wretch. Before I started my lessons I did not notice words at all, but that day I did, only I had not reckoned on there being so many more to know. Here in the new world it is like we are all just learning our letters.

This, because it’s too real:

(Nada, 2033)

Down through the trees I see the roof of our home. But what makes a home? Not wood, not bricks; safety, surely, surely. The year that has just passed, all the news reports, protests, referendums, were about national security, or about individual safety, but as if the threat was elsewhere. Yet the biggest danger came from our home itself, only we didn’t know what our home was. We thought it was bricks and mortar, but a home is more than that, it is land and sea and sky.

And this:

(Bel, 1996)

‘And remember too, this land here, this land you’re standing on, how ancient it is. Compared to this land, five thousand years is like a baby.’

‘See that lake there,’ Uncle Ray says, looking along the side of his house to the water. ‘That was here before any of us, and the creek that runs down from the mountain, and the trees, and the birds. We’re part of their story, not the other way around.’

‘Like they were here first,’ I say.

‘You got it, like they were here first,’ Uncle Ray says. ‘But it’s our job to look after all this land around here. If we don’t, bad things can happen.’

Thank you, Catherine McKinnon, for writing this beautiful book that gave me a new appreciation for our earth and our home. And perhaps most importantly, the original owners of our land. It’s frightening to see where McKinnon predicts we’ll be in 15 years’ time as global warming and natural disasters take flight. It’s too real and too possible. But very important to consider.

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