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Heart of the Grass Tree by Molly Murn

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PUBLISHED BY PENGUIN BOOKS
REVIEW BY ANITA LAURIDSEN

Heart of the Grass Tree by Molly Murn is an often beautiful and evocative read, though not without some problems. These are quite minor quibbles, however, and perhaps best attributed to the fact that this is a debut novel.

The story unfolds on Kangaroo Island: a wild, untamed location off the coast of South Australia. It is a rich canvas and Murn does the ugly-beautiful landscape justice with some of her descriptions singing off the page. It is also a place alive with stories, and a dark and disturbing past.

The narrative is disjunctive and flashes between multiple character perspectives and different timelines. Murn generally ensures that her readers are not left bewildered by these sometimes abrupt switches in narrative stance, however, by providing chapter titles and sub-titles.

The timeline I found most interesting was the one that draws on the early contact history between the often brutal European sealers and the Aboriginal women they claimed as their wives. The descriptions of the mistreatment of these women who lived on the island prior to its official colonisation in the mid-1830s are often graphic, but Murn faithfully paints an historically accurate picture and offers a nuanced perspective of the sometimes complex relationships between the sealers and the Aboriginal women they kidnapped; it was refreshing to see her venture beyond stereotypical depictions of the colonisers and the colonised.

At the heart of the story – and very much linked to the title – is the exploration of motherhood, familial love and the healing properties of creativity. When Pearl, the protagonist, returns to Kangaroo Island after her grandmother Nell’s death, she learns that through the experience of shared grief and loss, inextricable bonds can also be formed. She also uncovers the Island’s rich Aboriginal history and learns that ‘story’ and the reciprocal connection to country are a powerful part of the Island’s history and her own cultural heritage.

I did enjoy this novel and have no qualms recommending it, but I have to confess that Murn’s insistence on abandoning speech marks to differentiate dialogue from exposition was sometimes distracting. In other novels, this experimentation with style is effective – Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for instance – but here, it seemed an unnecessary affectation.

 

Find this novel in store at Planet Books. Ask the friendly staff for guidance too, and they’ll be more than happy to order you in a copy if it’s already sold out.