Our Shadows by Gail Jones

‘So who was this old Paddy, dying in Melbourne in 1925?’

In this novel, Ms Jones explores the lives of three generations of a family living in Kalgoorlie. Her story begins with Irish-born prospector, Paddy Hannan who discovered gold in 1893, and ends with the stories of Nell and Frances who were raised by their grandparents Fred and Else when their mother Mary dies in childbirth. Fred, who suffered the horrors of war, was close to Mary and is diminished by her death.

The narrative ebbs and flows: between generations, between past and present, between life and death. Nell and Frances were close as children, both enjoyed Jules Verne’s ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ and had a favourite sentence, which they passed between them:

‘It was not a mere phosphoric phenomenon.’

But as they grew older, Nell and Frances move to Sydney, and they became estranged. Frances is grieving for her husband Will who died from mesothelioma, while Nell struggles with mental health issues. And Else, central in their lives becomes diminished by dementia. And as Else recedes, Frances and Nell want to know more about their past, about the mother they never knew and the father who abandoned them. Their mother’s older sister, their Aunt Enid, is in Kalgoorlie.  Does she hold some of the answers that Frances (particularly) is seeking?

Frances travels to Kalgoorlie, to Jack and Else’s home, where she grew up and where Enid now lives. It is in the (fictitious) Midas Street, close to the Super Pit. Mining overshadows everything, together with the reminder of land expropriated from the original inhabitants.

‘Enid had refashioned their lounge room in the spirit of erasure.’

I became caught up in the story, in the impact of the mines on the different characters. For Paddy, the mines were a source of wealth, for Jack they were a place of refuge from the memories of war. For many others, they were a source of death through accident or disease. And what about those who occupied the land before? As the story unfolds and refolds, our perceptions change as we see different perspectives of the characters.

I finished the novel, sure that I have only understood part of the story Ms Jones is telling. I may have to reread it. This is Ms Jones’s 9th novel. I have not yet read them all.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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