I’ve loved mystery and crime novels since I was old enough to pull the Agatha Christie paperbacks from my mother’s bookshelves and lose myself in their exotic worlds of country homes and criminal passions. My tastes have changed (I’d like to say matured) over the years, my interests have broadened, but I’m still a sucker for a good whodunit. So when I saw that the winner of the 2009 David Unaipon Prize, Nicole Watson’s The Boundary (University of Queensland Press, 2011) revolved around a series of murders in the wake of a Native Title decision, I knew I was in for a good time.
The “boundary” refers literally to Boundary Street in Brisbane, just west of the Southbank entertainment district and the Queensland Art Gallery. Historically, this was the boundary across which Aboriginal people were forbidden to move after the evening curfew. Today it remains an area of significance to the local Indigenous people, with Musgrave Park home to the Jagera Arts Centre and site of a former bora ground, and the park, thinly disguised as Meston Park, is a key locale in the novel. But the boundary is a metaphysical one as well where Indigenous beliefs come into conflict with non-Indigenous values–and that sets the stage for the opening drama of The Boundary.
In classic crime novel style, the book opens with a murder. The victim is Bruce Brosnan, the judge who just hours earlier handed down a decision defeating the Native Title claim by the Corrowa (i.e. Karilpa) people who had hoped to save Meston Park from being gobbled up by a developer (the aptly named Coconunt Holdings) for the purpose of building a luxury high-rise.
But we don’t know this on the first page: all we know is that there is a dead man in a well-appointed kitchen, skull broken, surrounded by a circle of feathers.
Two detectives are examining the scene. One points out a painting on the wall to the other. Higgins asks Matthews if he knows who the painting is by. Matthews doesn’t; Higgins tells him it’s the work of Emily Kngwarreye. The medical examiner arrives, and then Watson takes us into a flashback that begins to reveal the backstory, as a young lawyer named Miranda sits in the Brosnan’s courtroom waiting for the judgement in the Native Title case to be handed down.
Watson’s style in these opening pages, and indeed through much of the novel, is cinematic. By that I mean that she doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining what she is showing us. She doesn’t, for instance, offer the information here that Detective Jason Matthews is of Aboriginal descent, or that Andrew Higgins, who recognizes the Kngwarreye on the wall, is a racist whitefella. As more characters are introduced, we don’t immediately learn of the connections among them, the family relationships, the histories they share. These get teased out by the action of the novel itself. Motivations become clear as characters interact and reveal themselves to one another. Watson doesn’t step in and signpost the story for us.
On first reading the opening chapters, I felt disoriented, and actually took to making notes about names and families to try to sort out the action. Usually, I’d be a bit annoyed by a writer of genre fiction who made me work that hard to follow the plot: this is, after all, supposed to be a lark, a bit of relaxation for the reader, something to pass the time with at the beach, or perhaps on a rainy day wrapped in a doona.
But The Boundary isn’t a lark: it’s a world of pain. There is the obvious pain that the community feels at the impending loss of the only land in the city of Brisbane that still feel they hold some purchase on. There is the pain of separation: the key witness who might have swayed the judgement is discredited because the records of her ancestry have been lost in time following her removal to the mission orphanage at Manoah decades ago. There is the pain of other skulls cracked by policemen in the confrontations that take place as the mob tries to stay planted in Meston Park. And there will be more murders to follow.
But more than that, there is the pain that forms the core of almost every major character in the novel. Miranda, the young Indigenous lawyer with a future before her, struggles with alcoholism. Lesley, the Premier’s Senior Indigenous Adviser, is a compulsive gambler. Dick Payne, the murderer’s second victim, a Pearson-esque lawyer aiming to break the hold of welfare on his people, is a compulsive womanizer; he drives his wife Sherene into adultery as well. Jason, the detective we met on the opening page of the novel, is unsure of his heritage, and unsure how to act on it; his partner Higgins appears to be being eaten alive by his own hatred and misery. Aunty Ethel’s bitterness has opened the door to madness.
What I’ve called Watson’s “cinematic” narrative strategy–perhaps “dramatic” would do as well–a showing rather than a telling–forces us to work out the characters’ stories for ourselves. In a way, she is less interested in the plot, in whodunit, than in the life stories and the psychological tolls exacted on these people and how they respond to them. That curiosity about the human condition, about the pain the world inflicts on people and how they respond to it, coupled with a narrative technique that is bold and demanding, lifts The Boundary above the conventions of genre fiction and makes it clear why Nicole Watson won the David Unaipon Award.