Our Shadows

Gail Jones

Our Shadows
Text Publishing Co
29 September 2020

Our Shadows

Gail Jones

Our Shadows is a story about three generations of family living in Kalgoorlie, where gold was discovered in 1893 by an Irish-born prospector named Paddy Hannan, whose own history weaves in and out of this beguiling novel.

 Nell and Frances are sisters who are close enough in age to be mistaken for twins. Raised by their grandparents, they now live in Sydney. Each in her own way struggles with the loss of their parents.

Little by little the sisters grow to understand the imaginative force of the past and the legacy of their shared orphanhood. Then Frances decides to make a journey home to the goldfields to explore what lies hidden and unspoken in their lives, in the shadowy tunnels of the past.


Nell and Frances Kelly are raised by their grandparents after their mother dies in labour and their father abandons them in a fit of grief. The sisters grow up with a special bond cemented by a shared language, a love of stories and a mutual fascination with Hokusai’s The Great Wave. This closeness dissipates in adulthood as they individually struggle with the legacy of their orphanhood and the loss of their grandparents. Following the death of her husband, Frances becomes determined to excavate the past and travels home to Kalgoorlie in search of answers.

Our Shadows largely focuses on the stories of these three generations of the Kelly family: Fred and Else, their daughters Mary and Enid, and Mary’s daughters, Nell and Frances. Woven into their stories is the tale of real-life miner Paddy Hannan, the man responsible for discovering gold in the West Australian goldfields. The novel moves between nineteenth century Ireland and the Australian goldfields; mid-twentieth century Australia and World War II battle sites; and contemporary Sydney, Melbourne, and Kalgoorlie.

This might sound like quite a lot to fit into one 300-page novel, but Gail Jones deftly and sensitively brings together these disparate stories into a meditation on grief, loss, estrangement, identity and, strangely enough, mining and underground rescue. The concepts and feelings tackled here are beautifully universal, but told in a context that is uniquely Australian. Jones’s novel is an inventive blend of contemporary and historical fiction, real and imagined characters. This is required reading for anyone interested in the state of literary fiction in Australia today.

Tristen Brudy works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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