The novel is the story of a young girl, Perdita Keene, the child of English immigrants who come to Australia in the years between the wars. Her parents’ marriage might be described as accidental: they are two people without a place in the world, whose almost haphazard journey leaves them in an isolated corner of Western Australia south of Broome. Her father, Nicholas, a damaged veteran of the Great War, seeks to become a world-famous anthropologist, but is unable to connect with the Aboriginal people he is sent to study. Her mother, Stella, finds meaning in the world only through the cracked lens of lengthy selections from Shakespeare that she has memorized. Her tenuous hold on reality is further shattered by the harshness of the Outback, and in the course of the events narrated here, she is institutionalized more than once.
On one of these occasions, a young Aboriginal woman, Mary, is brought back to the Keenes’ dilapidated shack, an outpost furnished with towers of Nicholas’s books and, once the Second World War begins, clippings registering the advance of the Axis powers across the theaters of war. Mary’s job is to care for Perdita during her mother’s absence, and once the extremely fragile Stella returns, Mary stays on. Billy, the deaf-mute child of the neighboring family, and Mary form the small circle of trusted friends that grant Perdita a place in the world.
The bloody, violent death of Nicholas in his rural bolthole opens the book, but it is not until very near the end that the circumstances of his death are made clear. The trauma of witnessing the murder robs Perdita of her ability to speak cogently. A debilitating stutter reduces her to a silence nearly as complete as her friend Billy’s muteness; her youthful incomprehension in the face of this trauma forbids her to speak the truth and condemns her to a silence that is also mirrored in the fate of Mary, who is charged with the murder and taken away to jail in Perth. In the wake of all this tragedy, Perdita is eventually fostered out to the care of a sympathetic couple down south. In the big city, she eventually re-establishes connections with both Billy and Mary, and under the guidance of a Russian therapist, overcomes her stutter and allows the truth of her father’s killing to surface from the depths of forgetting to which she has consigned it, unwittingly and devastatingly.
In the course of assembling this narrative, Jones offers her readers a wide array of pleasures. There is history embedded everywhere: stories of the fears of invading Japanese, or of rural communities strafed, of ships bombed and survivors tormented. These are thrilling passages, recalling actual historical narratives. There is great literature woven throughout. Jones’s use of Shakespeare is brilliant, at time illuminating, at times mystifying, and in combination sketching the outlines of Stella’s mental collapse in a manner that mirrors the trenchant uncertainty one feels in the presence of madness. There is suspense as well, as the question of how Nicholas died, and why, twists its slow way through the story.
And yet at times each of these brilliant devices seems to stand clearly as just that: a device. I was perpetually balanced between my awe at Jones’s artistry and my uncomfortable, inescapable recognition of it as artifice. It was if the brilliance of the prose made me all the more aware of the mirror’s glare that produced it.
The best moments, I thought, were those that detailed the burgeoning friendship between the two girls, and the chance that Mary provides Perdita, the chance to discover a home in the desert environment of Western Australia that proves to be her parents’ undoing. True, Jones runs the risk of producing yet another meditation on the “natural” qualities of the Aboriginal characters, of the white man’s dependence on the indigenous to come to terms with the harsh environment and the colonizer’s inability to recognize the import of that dependence. But the warmth with which she describes the friendship, and the joy that it brings the aptly named Perdita, the lost one, rings so true that it succeeds in forging the heart of the book’s emotional gospel.
I am less certain how well Jones succeeds in the book’s central thesis regarding the apology. Mary is unsurprisingly revealed at the end to be innocent of the crime for which she has been imprisoned, yet she insists on maintaining her silence even when confronted with Perdita’s understanding of the true course of events. Perdita bows to Mary’s determination, and it is only after the Aboriginal woman’s death–too late, in other words–that she recognizes that she should have said “sorry,” that she should have apologized for forgetting, for her silence, for the trauma that her progenitors forced upon both of them. Read as an allegory for the psychic state of (at least part of) contemporary Australian society, this conclusion almost works. As novelistic psychology, it feels tattered, awkward, and just a bit gimcrack, just as the image of the towers of books in Nicholas’s shack feel like a too self-conscious and transparent recasting of Shakespeare’s The Tempest to be believable as literal furnishings.
But perhaps I cavil. Sorry does not have the stature of last year’s winner of the Miles Franklin, Carpentaria, but then few works of world literature today do. Sorry has sincerity, craft, and thoughtfulness to offer, no mean set of virtues. It is a very Australian novel. Perhaps someone should send Brendan Nelson a copy.