0312 | Remembering Babylon | David Malouf

0312 | Remembering Babylon | Malouf | 62% | Good

Context: Read this as we enjoyed tea and cakes at the River Tea Rooms on the banks of the Great Ouse in St Ives, Cambridgeshire


I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that was set in Queensland although A Town Like Alice may have been close. Having been to a couple of places there and driven from Cairns to Cape Tribulation, I haven’t seen the wilderness that this book is set in but it certainly helped me imagine it. Malouf’s prose though does an excellent job at making the land come alive. It, along with his characters, are fully fleshed out in this short but powerful novel.

Like many works of literature (as opposed to stories) it isn’t what happens in this novel that is important so much as how it affects the characters. Thus a reading of the events of Remembering would be interesting but nowhere near as significant without this insight into the human psyche. Each and every character that is introduced, including the land itself, is returned to in ever richer exploration of thoughts and feelings. It’s this richness, and the disjointed way that the prose jumps from one character to another that makes this novel important.

That said, it made it more difficult to read than I expected and for me, didn’t go far enough to really be innovative. I do think that the device of a white boy who is raised by aborigines and returns to his white origins as a teen is a good vehicle but I’m not sure that it was used to greatest effect. Although Gemmy, as he’s named, is a fascinating character, the thing that gives him such presence in the novel is the life he’s shared with the aborigines. However, this is almost sidelined by a focus on the effect he has on the white community he reveals himself to and returns to his life before being abandoned at sea as a boy. There is virtually no exploration of the this most fascinating aspect of his character and, for me, the novel fails to satisfy for that reason.

Don’t get me wrong, Malouf is an excellent writer and causes us to consider many very important issues about a sense of belonging, race, community, men, etc. His prose is considered and crafted well and he is obviously a master constructor of literature. But for all his insights into the characters, to leave me wanting to know more about them disappoints me. However, definitely a good book to get some insight into the early period of white settlement in remote Australia and to explore issues of identity and cross-cultural relationships especially.


One day in the middle of the 19th century, when settlement in Queensland had advanced little more than halfway up the coast, three children were playing at the edge of a paddock when they saw something extraordinary.


I think of our early settlers, starving on these shores in the midst of plenty they did not recognise, in a blessed nature of flesh, fowl, fruit that was all around them and which they could not, with their English eyes, perceive, since the very habit and faculty that makes apprehensible to us what is known and expected dulls our sensitivity to other forms, even the most obvious. We must rub our eyes and look again, clear our minds of what we are looking for to see what is there.


It glows in fullness till the tide is high and the light almost, but not quite, unbearable, as the moon plucks at our world and all the waters of the earth ache towards it, and the light, running in fast now, reaches the edges of the shore, just so far in its order, and all the muddy margin of the bay is alive, and in a line of running fire all the outline of the vast continent appears, in touch now with its other life.



Key: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement Read more about how I come up with my ratings

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  1. Thanks for the warning. Sounds like an Australian version of Tarzan. If you’re still in the mood for a story about Oz, I’d reccomend *A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia* by Thomas Keneally. Non-fiction but written in a narrative format.

    I’ve decided, by the way, that my journey through 1001 Books is going to be mostly limited to books written in English as the original language. Not that I don’t trust translation for general meaning, but these are books where so much seems determined by precise and unique use of language, so reading in the original language seems more important.

    1. actually read a book by Keneally while I was in PNG in 2009 but it was slightly more famous i.e. this one. I have heard of the one you mention though and if I see it will see what it has to offer.

      Books in English… hmmm… I see what you mean but there are so many written in other languages that a) give me great insights into non-English speaking culture and b) are profoundly important that I don’t think I could follow your lead. I mean, you are then bound to ignore all Russian literature. I can’t imagine what I’d be without having read Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky to name just three. Anyway…

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