cover image Remembering Babylon

Remembering Babylon

David Malouf. Pantheon Books, $20 (200pp) ISBN 978-0-679-42724-7

The prodigiously talented Australian author of the magnificent and award-winning The Great World (1991) is working on a much smaller scale here, but he writes with such beauty and universal resonance that his story has epic force. In a tiny pioneer corner of Queensland in the mid-19th century lands Gemmy Fairley, a pathetic, stammering wreck of a young man left for drowned as a boy and brought up by Aborigines. He becomes the center of attention among the local farming folk, mostly immigrants from Scotland and the North Country, already overwhelmed by their solitude in this hot, strange land, and convinced that the primitive original inhabitants will slaughter them if they drop their guard for a moment. A naturalist minister sees in Gemmy and his native skills a way for the bone-poor colony to prosper and live in harmony with the land; a decent, struggling Scottish couple take him in and by doing so tear apart their relations with their neighbors, though their children's lives are forever changed by Gemmy's presence; and the governing class, in distant Brisbane, try to do the right thing by him for all the wrong reasons. It seems the slight tale can only have a sad, violent end, but Malouf is after a much less predictable resolution. In his hands, the story acquires overtones of poetry and magic, so that death and time's passage are as palpable as the luminous landscapes he paints. This is a book that actually expands a reader's consciousness. (Oct.)