'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Saturday 20 August 2011

Review: Nanberry, Black Brother White

Don't you love it when people say they quite literally couldn't put a book down and you sort of think to yourself "yeah... right... it may have been good but you DID put it down at some stage...". Well, I'm here to tell you, I quite literally could not put Jackie French's latest book - Nanberry - down.

Admittedly, I did read it over two days, so yes, I did put it down to sleep at one stage, but all other times, that book was in my hands constantly, even as I went about other vital human processes (like making cups of tea). The book simply enveloped me.

Nanberry, Black Brother White is a truly astounding historical fictional novel. From the voice French uses, to the character development, the astonishing descriptions, the emotionally deep human elements... it is a breathtaking story... and even more so for its basis in truth.

Not many can research and present history like Jackie French. The author truly succumbs to the past in her historical writing, and completely immerses herself in another time. By becoming part of the past, French speaks with a voice that rings as true as the diary entries and logs she frequents for her research, creating dialogue and visuals that goosebump the skin, and transport the reader to another world... where you can hear possums scratching, smell cornbread cooking, feel the dirt and grit and cold and heat and oppression and fear and joy.

What I also love about her work, particularly Nanberry, is her penchant for interpretation - which she clearly outlines in her author notes at the end of the book. With a mind brimming with historical fact, it's a pleasure to learn of French's own, carefully and knowledgeably-calculated suppositions on what may or may not have happened in Australia's colonial past.

But back to the story - oh where to begin? With Nanberry. A young Indigenous boy (around 8 or 9 years old), Nanberry tragically loses his family to smallpox yet manages to survive this horrendous outbreak that killed so many Indigenous Australians only a year into white settlement (1789).

Nursed back to health by the settlement's chief surgeon - John White - Nanberry quickly absorbs English, and, impressing the surgeon with his intelligence and youth, goes on to live with him and his convict maid Maria. Very soon, this beautiful young boy finds himself caught between two worlds - that of his long-departed Eora tribe, and that of his new English 'family', headed by Father White.

What ensues is a fascinating, beautifully-woven tale that incorporates pockets of factual occurrence - like the spearing of Captain Phillip on Manly beach by Willemeeerin, a Guringai warrior - with both factual and summised dialogue and relationships, such as Surgeon White's fictional maid 'Maria' and his factual partner, convict Rachel Turner - an astounding woman in herself.

The book focuses on Nanberry and Surgeon White's tale, and the subsequent tale of Nanberry's white step brother, Andrew White - but the storyline is utterly bursting with opportunity to branch out into an encyclopedia of tales... How I wanted to know even more about Rachel Turner, more about the amazing Bennelong, more about the beautiful Thomas Moore, more about the self-serving Rum Corps and more about what happens to Surgeon White upon his return to England.

French does make notes on her cast of characters (as well as other fascinating information) at the end of the book, and herself mentions how the book developed into something bigger and more detailed than even she imagined. But then - that is history for you - its interlocking and deeply-woven threads coming together in a lush and exotic tale that could never, quite literally, end.

Nanberry, Black Brother White is yet another sliver of proof that the truth far outweighs fiction when it comes to drama, power, beauty, tragedy and love. Jackie French has summoned each and every one one of these powerful threads into a breathtaking saga of raw emotion and enthralling storyline that hauls your heart out of your chest. From the pet possum in Father White's house to the detailed and unnerving descriptions of early hospital life in the colony, this is compelling reading.

I feel so grateful our children will be exposed to Australia's utterly gripping and detailed history via books like Nanberry, but this tale is not just for children. Its intelligence, style, detail and depth makes it a deeply moving and satisfying adult read.

In Nanberry, I laughed, I gasped, I marvelled, I wept openly and I grieved like that young boy was a member of my own clan. I was left utterly bereft at the turning of the final page and I can only hope that this remarkable author opens another chapter that links to this beautiful Nanberry tale. It's clear French has a deep passion for our beautiful country - and I, for one, am both breathtaken, grateful and proud.

Film version, please.

Title: Nanberry, Black Brother White
Author: Jackie French
Publisher: HarperCollins, $16.99 RRP
Publication Date: 1 August 2011
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9780732290221
For ages: 11+
Type: Historical Fiction