Taboo
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Taboo

Kim Scott

Taboo takes place in the present day, in the rural South-West of Western Australia, and tells the story of a group of Noongar people who revisit, for the first time in many decades, a taboo place: the site of a massacre that followed the assassination, by these Noongar’s descendants, of a white man who had stolen a black woman. They come at the invitation of Dan Horton, the elderly owner of the farm on which the massacres unfolded. He hopes that by hosting the group he will satisfy his wife’s dying wishes and cleanse some moral stain from the ground on which he and his family have lived for generations.

But the sins of the past will not be so easily expunged.

We walk with the ragtag group through this taboo country and note in them glimmers of re-connection with language, lore, country. We learn alongside them how countless generations of Noongar may have lived in ideal rapport with the land. This is a novel of survival and renewal, as much as destruction; and, ultimately, of hope as much as despair.

Review

In the time since his last novel, Benang, Kim Scott has been working as a researcher and teacher, focusing on documenting and sharing Noongar language and culture. Scott has shown repeatedly how rejuvenating and teaching Aboriginal languages can connect and support communities that have been historically ignored and abused, and in Taboo he returns to fiction to explore these ideas, which are urgently and universally applicable.

Taboo tells the story of Tilly Coolman, an orphaned young Noongar woman who has suffered abuse and addiction and has now been taken in by her Indigenous family, called Wirlomin. The plot converges on this family’s return to their traditional country, which has been avoided for generations after a massacre took place on what remains a large farm property owned by Dan Harper and his brother, Malcolm. The catalyst for return is the opening of a memorial ‘Peace Park’, which represents efforts from the settler community to move towards reconciliation. Invigorated by a project of sharing Noongar language that began in the local prison, led by Tilly’s father and grandfather, the return to country offers a chance for ‘detox’ – as well as learning language and preparing for the opening of the park, which the Wirlomin people refer to with wry humour.

Though the backstory is dark, Scott’s treatment of his subject paints a picture of regeneration and resilience, with a group of people at the centre of the novel who resist and withstand the forces which are poised to destroy their community through history. Scott’s characters are endearing and tough. Although the ‘bad guy’ of this novel lacks a similar depth, the focus is clearly on survivors of violence rather than its perpetrators. I think this makes it a welcome change from novels about Australian history which read as tragedies from which no one can recover.

Taboo is a pressingly important novel, and it is engrossing to read, with a warmth and pace that reminded me of Scott’s excellent first novel, True Country. I highly recommend it.


George Delaney works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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