January 1788 was the most pivotal month in Australia’s long, long history. Several ships appeared on the horizon off the New South Wales coast, and First Nations men gathered to discuss what to do. Should the strangers be welcomed, or run off? Are they approaching as friends or foes? This is the moment at the heart of The Visitors, Jane Harrison’s debut novel based on her award-winning play.
The blurb positions The Visitors as Twelve Angry Men meets Lincoln In The Bardo with an Australian sense of humour – which is pretty spot on (though, I’ll admit, I didn’t laugh out loud really at all – the content was too serious and captivating for that).
Representatives of the clan groups around the harbour (Wangal, Bidjigal, Burramuttagal, Cameragal, Gadigal, Wallumedegal, and Gweagal) gather for the emergency meeting. Some are young, some old, each with their own private inclinations and formal alliances that will dictate how they decide to proceed. They argue and share stories over the course of the day; it’s a fascinating tableau, though the reader can see the inevitable conclusion fast approaching.
Over and above the primary focus of The Visitors, I was particularly taken with how Harrison depicted the close connection between First Nations people and country. The Aboriginal characters can read the land and its rhythms in a remarkably complex and insightful way – in line with Dark Emu and contemporary research into First Nations history and science.
What wrenched my heart, though, was the way the characters didn’t – couldn’t – foresee the most dangerous threat posed by the visitors to their shores. It wasn’t their firesticks or their “barbarous” treatment of the land, but something far more insidious…
The Visitors is a particularly thought-provoking read with the forthcoming Referendum in Australia, and I doubt the timing of its release is an accident. I highly recommend it to all Australian readers – and all international readers who want to know more about our history, come to that.
Timely reminder: Keeping Up With The Penguins is a project undertaken on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation (as featured in The Visitors). I pay my deepest respects to the Elders of this land, and their enduring custodianship.
Buy The Visitors on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)