Heart of the Grass Tree

Molly Murn

Heart of the Grass Tree
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Heart of the Grass Tree

Molly Murn

Pearl remembers Nell’s feet stretched towards the campfires on the beach, her fourth toe curled in and nestled against the middle toe like a small prawn. They all have a curled fourth toe - Diana, Lucy, Pearl.

When Pearl’s grandmother Nell dies unexpectedly, Pearl and her family - mother Diana, sister Lucy - return to Kangaroo Island to mourn and farewell her. Each of them knew Nell intimately but differently, and each woman must reckon with Nell’s passing in her own way. But Nell had secrets, too, and as Pearl, Diana and Lucy interrogate their feelings about the island, Pearl starts to pull together the scraps Nell left behind - her stories, poems, paintings - and unearths a connection to the island’s early history, of the early European sealers and their first contact with the Ngarrindjeri people.

As the three women are in grief pulled apart from each other, Pearl’s deepening connection to their history, the island’s history, grounds her, and will ultimately bring the women back to each other.

Heart of the Grass Tree is an exquisite, searing and hope-filled debut about mothers and daughters and family stories, about country and its living history.  


Before Nell died, she knew she needed to record a story, a story she had found very hard to share, a story that stretches back before her time. After Nell dies, her daughter to whom she said little, and her granddaughters to whom she said more, gather to mourn. They gather on Kangaroo Island, Nell’s home – always. As Uncle Jim says, Kangaroo Island has always been a place for mourning.

Pearl has returned to Kangaroo Island to bury her grandmother. It is the place of her happy childhood. For Diana, Nell’s daughter, it is a place she returns to reluctantly, a place that has always stifled her. She has come to bury a mother who always eluded her.

In her debut novel, Molly Murn reaches out to draw together the threads of a family with many secrets from one another and weave them into the history of settlement on Kangaroo Island. It is a history long elided. It is a history of brutal conquest, and a history of contested ownership.

In the past other mothers and daughters have come to Kangaroo Island. Maringani comes to Kangaroo Island holding on to the arm of her mother, who had been kidnapped and brutalised by sealers. Later, Maringani chooses not to leave Kangaroo Island and her story is woven into the history of Indigenous women on the island, which is always visible if you look for it.

Murn weaves these layers of mourning together: from the recent loss of Nell to all the secret ways in which Nell herself had mourned, and back to the original mourning of Kangaroo Island’s first permanent settlers. Heart of the Grass Tree is a story, richly told, of the landscape of Australian history – both emotional and physical – and the way we record these stories of place.

Marie Matteson is from Readings Carlton.

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