Kim Scott is a Perth writer of Aboriginal decent who has previously won the Miles Franklin Award for his novel – Benang (1999). The Miles Franklin Award is Australia’s premier literary prize and Scott is in the fine company of previous winners such as Peter Carey, Tim Winton and Patrick White. That Deadman Dance has won Scott his second Miles Franklin Award and like his previous work it involves a narrative that provides an examination of Aboriginal Australia.
The novel is set in the colony that would go on to be called Albany in the period 1833 to 1844. It is written in the third person from the perspective of both the colonists and the Aboriginal people known as Noongars. Albany was the first colony to be established in Western Australia, preceding the capital – Perth, by three years.
In Scott’s author’s notes at the end of the novel he indicates that the Albany region was known as “the friendly frontier” due to the relatively peaceful relationship between the settlers and the Noongars. The principle Noongar character is Wabalanginy, known as Bobby to the colonists. Bobby is the bridge between the two cultures and we meet him on the very first page. He’s a charismatic character who charms both the colonists and his fellow Noongars. It’s Bobby who performs the “deadman dance” - a dance that mimics the effects of European diseases that wipe out a significant portion of Aborigines throughout Australia.
Scott’s writing is an interesting proposition. Stylistically it can be impressionistic and the narrative is not always linear so that events can seem jumbled up in an almost organic fashion. Not having read his other books I’m not sure if this is his usual style, or whether it is a particular stylistic choice that conveys how the Noongar people perceived their world. Either way once you get used to Scott’s writing it becomes quite an engaging way to spin a tale. Scott’s descriptions of the Australian bush and its animals are also beautiful and really capture the uniqueness of the Australian wilderness, with its primeval atmosphere of isolation and immense age.
The colonist characters provide an effective insight into just how tough it must have been to live in such an isolated region. Killam, an ex soldier and convict Skelly are certainly rugged individuals who make their way as best they can in an alien environment. How they carry themselves and the decisions they make are in direct contrast to the Noongar characters such as Bobby and the elder – Menak. Yet somehow the divergent groups find a middle path and benefit from each-others technology and knowledge. The contrast between the two groups is one of the ways in which Noongar culture is revealed to the reader and it works quite well.
There’s trouble of course, in the form of spearings, shootings, thieving and tension created by the exploitation of the whales that travel down the coast. The sections detailing the whaling, carried out in a bay where the poor creatures stop to rest, have an emotional punch and are also fascinating in a macabre way. It’s in this context that the mostly British colonists, the Noongars and American whalers converge into a mostly cooperative group, that is until the whales start to become scarce.
The quality of Scott’s writing is such that I can understand why That Deadman Dance won numerous awards. Scott readily evokes time and place as well as culture and the inevitability of historical change. The book is both heartening and sad – it reveals the promise of what could have been and therefore saddens due to the contrast of what followed for the Noongars and their fellow Aborigines throughout Australia.
Unfortunately I was not ready for this book as I was not in the mood for a novel about colonial Australia. This is sometimes the case when a novel read for a book club does not correspond with what you’d like to be reading at the time. In hindsight this saddens me as I feel like I did not benefit from Scott’s deft handling of a significant time in Australia’s history; but for other readers I recommend That Deadman Dance as a book worthy of your attention.