September 2008

Beth Harrington

fiction

Sorry by Gail Jones

Gail Jones’s Sorry chronicles the coming-of-age of an unwanted girl raised by unloving and self-absorbed parents in the most desolate reaches of Australia during World War II. Nicholas is a World War I veteran with shrapnel in his back whose dreams of becoming a famous anthropologist and discovering the secrets of the origins of humanity remain unfulfilled due to his inability to focus his ambitions. His wife, Stella is withdrawn and morose, with a penchant for obsessively reciting the works of Shakespeare. Their relationship is distant and dispassionate, punctuated by incidents of violent arguing, yet they still manage to conceive a child. Perdita -- whose name means "lost" -- grows up alone and deprived of human comfort except for that provided by her friendship with her neighbor’s son, a deaf mute, and the Aboriginals her father studies.

When Stella is hospitalized for a malaise that is halfway between depression and dementia, Nicholas brings home Mary, an Aboriginal girl living in a convent, to take care of Perdita. It is with her that Perdita develops her most cherished bond as Mary acts as the sister she longs for and teaches her knowledge of the earth as passed down from her tribe. Unfortunately, Nicholas forces himself on Mary repeatedly even after Stella returns, until he is forced to pay for his indiscretions with his life. What transpires that day leaves all family members, including the perpetrator, in ruins. Numbed by shock after the death of her father, Perdita develops a stutter that exacerbates the isolation and ridicule that she experiences at the hands of her peers.

Sorry is written in a style that is calculated to capture the remoteness and loneliness of both its distant setting and Perdita’s hapless childhood. However, this does not always make for palatable reading. At times during Sorry I found myself wondering what more would happen to these characters and whether it was worth the effort to care. Even its few truly intense moments such as Nicholas’s death and the Japanese air raid on the Dutch flying boats are spaced too far apart and seem too abrupt, juxtaposed with scene after scene describing Perdita’s deprived upbringing. The novel also suffers from a lack of focus, which weakens its overall plot. Sorry reads as partly a bildungsroman of a neglected child, partly a critique of the discrimination endured by the Aboriginal people well into the twentieth century, with a bit of World War II historiography sprinkled in. However, the book is not quite lengthy enough or absorbing enough to give adequate detail to any of these pursuits, and its themes are not blended together in a manner so that they complement one another.

The novel does become more interesting after Stella and Perdita evacuate to Perth due to the threat of an impending Japanese invasion and Perdita is placed in a foster home with the old but loving Ramsays, Ted and Flora. In their care, she begins therapy with the compassionate and wise Dr. Oblov, who helps her to overcome her stutter and unearth the truth about what really happened on the night Nicholas died. Yet even this revelation seems unsatisfactory as justice is never really meted out and all of the characters fade away into oblivions of various degrees. Perdita herself is left alive but with no definitive direction to her life at its conclusion.

Sorry by Gail Jones
Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1-933372-55-6
256 pages