Inside the story: the all-knowing narrator in Kim Scott’s Taboo

View from a highway rest stop east of Ravensthorpe, Western Australia. In Kim Scott’s Taboo, the landscape becomes a narrator.
Chris Fithall/flickr, CC BY

Julienne van Loon, RMIT University

Why do we tell stories, and how are they crafted? In this series, we unpick the work of the writer on both page and screen.

The omniscient narrator – an all-knowing, third-person voice – is making a return to contemporary fiction. Indigenous Australian author Kim Scott, in choosing this technique for his latest award-winning novel, Taboo, is not alone: we can also find it in recent fiction by Zadie Smith (White Teeth; On Beauty) and Richard Powers (The Overstory).

Readers might be surprised by this trend. Isn’t the penchant to narrate in this way – like a kind of god – long dead? Curiously, the answer is no.

Along with several of his peers, Kim Scott is playing with a mode of omniscience deeply informed by the legacy of postmodernism in literature, a movement characterised by, among other things, a critique of the unreliable narrator. As with all of Kim Scott’s fiction, it matters deeply who it is that is speaking.

Literary scholar Paul Dawson has argued that the reappearance of the omniscient narrator in recent fiction can be read as “a performance of narrative authority”. He suggests one reason omniscience has returned is the anxiety many writers now feel about the role and place of storytelling in contemporary culture, where freely available digital media stories, peppered with fake news, produce and reproduce endlessly. As a result, there is very little about in the way of the consistently reliable narrative authority.

Pan Macmillan

Enter Kim Scott’s omniscient narration in Taboo. Here is a narration that is playfully performative, in part to acknowledge and perhaps counter the many problems with narrative authority in contemporary life, but also to approach a very difficult topic.

This is a novel about a massacre site, and the question of how to adequately acknowledge what such a site means for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in the present.

Questions around power and narration are entirely pertinent in this context. Whose history is this? And who can tell it adequately? Who has the authority? Who, even, has an adequate handle on the story?

The sense of the flesh-and-blood Indigenous Australian author, Kim Scott, is ever present behind the text. Curiously, he even inserts an Afterword, a non-fiction commentary on his intentions with the novel, directly following the final page. It is an exegesis, or explanation, of sorts. But in and through the novel itself, the omniscient voice is not the implied voice of the author. It is something else entirely.

Read more:
From Benang to Taboo, Kim Scott memorialises events we don’t want to remember

A higher voice

Reviewing Taboo for the Sydney Morning Herald, literary critic Peter Pierce describes the novel as having an “oracular” voice. Pierce may simply mean that the voice of the novel is enigmatic, but Scott’s narration is also oracular in the sense of employing a voice that claims the authority of an oracle – a source of wisdom from some higher, more ancient order of meaning.

Sometimes this makes the book feel like a work of magic realism, where the magical creeps into the real world, as in the opening pages:

We thought to tell a story with such momentum; a truck careering down a hillside, thunder in a rocky riverbed, a skeleton tumbling to the ground. There must be at least one brave and resilient character at its centre (one of us), and the story will speak of magic in an empirical age; of how our dead will return, transformed, to support us again and from within.

Reviewer Jane Gleeson-White has described the voice of the book as belonging to “‘undead’ Noongar ancestors who rise from the riverbed to narrate”. This is functionally correct, but Scott’s text is not a conventional ghost story, nor is the first-person plural, with its sense of a haunting presence, heavily laboured.

Author Kim Scott employs an omniscient voice in his latest novel.
Pan Macmillan

Read more:
Explainer: magical realism

For much of the novel, we are focused upon the key protagonist, Tilly, in a way that could easily be mistaken for conventional realism. Except that it isn’t. Scott regularly disrupts that notion through shifts of perspective, a regular pulling back to the bigger picture. Here is one example, where the reader’s “sitting” on Tilly’s shoulder as she looks out the window of her group’s tour bus is interrupted by another viewpoint, one she cannot be simultaneously aware of:

Seen through the insect-smeared windscreen: scarcely undulating, dry and bleached ground; fence lines beside the road and dividing, at wide intervals, a mostly bare landscape. A fence is just the posts holding hands, thought Tilly, and such long arms in between them … “This place, Tilly, where we’re going” Gerry began, but Tilly was not listening and he let the words die. No one took up the conversation.

Taboo’s omniscient narration is gently provocative. It prods us to think about being or existence, for the novel’s unseen collective voice is more-than-human. As an ancestral voice, it is possible to understand our narrator(s) as a life expanded beyond the human form to encompass land, water, fire and curlew. We are encouraged to shift our thinking beyond the human-centric and towards the relation between human and other forms, especially ecological ones.

Consider, for example, this passage from the end of the novel, when an elderly Tilly is pictured at some point in the future, contemplating a pile of tree branches in a forest:

[She] would see not timber limbs but the bones of something new and ancient, something recreated and invigorated, and would think of when she first heard a voice rumbling from a riverbed, and how something reached out to her.

Did Scott just suggest that a riverbed might have a voice? That an energy without form might have reach?

To some extent, the meaning we take from Taboo depends upon how we think about the whole notion of omniscience. In my view, Scott’s choice of narrative technique works to ask of us as humans an increasingly important question: where are our limits? His use of omniscient narration might therefore be understood as a not just a literary choice, but a philosophical and ethical one.The Conversation

Julienne van Loon, Vice Chancellor’s Principal Research Fellow, School of Media & Communication, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From Benang to Taboo, Kim Scott memorialises events we don’t want to remember

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A memorial in Kukenarup to the massacre that took place in the area, in which 30-40 Aboriginal men, women, and children were killed.

Jo Jones, Curtin University

Over the past three decades the Miles Franklin shortlists have contained a healthy serve of history, from the poised historical fiction of authors such as David Malouf and Roger McDonald, to the past-in-present fabulations of Alexis Wright and Richard Flanagan. Another is Kim Scott, twice winner of the award, and part of the current shortlist with his most recent novel Taboo.

Scott’s literary output over the past two decades powerfully immerses and reimmerses itself in the same regional terrain of Western Australia’s southern coastal region – the traditional home of the Wirlomen Nyoongar people. Even more specifically, much of his work circles around one event, the Kukanerup Massacre.

This scene of traumatic horror, in which 30-40 Aboriginal men, women and children were killed, was a series of reprisal killings for the death of settler John Dunn in the 1880s. The massacre is vividly rendered in Scott’s Benang (1998). The blood of hanged Nyoongar bodies slowly drips into the ground and the land itself bleeds in empathetic response to inexpressible torment.

Taboo, by Kim Scott.

In Kayang and Me (a 2012 memoir co-written with Scott’s Aunty Hazel Brown) and more recently, Taboo, the massacre reappears, as if it is uncontainable, too complicated, traumatic, and politically vexed for any one story. Even more problematic, even for a storyteller of Scott’s calibre, is how to tell a story that the victim’s descendents may not necessarily want told. To speak of the massacre is the titular taboo, a cultural ban that has lasted over a century.

Since 2014, Australia has compulsively memorialised its national war history with televised memorial services from monuments in Gallipolli, Posierre and, this year, Villers-Bretonneux. In the coming weeks there will be events recognising The Battle of Mont St Quentin, breaking the Hindenburg Line and then, eventually, the armistice centenary on November 11.

Why do we want to recognise some events and “bury”, literally and metaphorically, others? Simply put, military histories – offensive and defensive positions, battles won and lost – are nationally palatable. Without wishing to downplay the very real suffering of soldiers, widows and orphaned children, some of Australia’s more respected thinkers agree that, a century on, we are now collectively “toploaded” with a degree of historical detail that makes remembering an old war paradoxically comforting.

There are so many other events we should also remember. While much colonial violence is woefully under-memorialised, Scott’s work, and particularly Taboo, shows us a way forward.

The plot of Scott’s Taboo has close ties to actual memorial events surrounding the Kukanerup massacre. In 2015, a sculpture and walk were officially opened near Ravensthorpe on Western Australia’s southern coast. Rather than marking a grave, the memorial references the wings of a wedge-tailed eagle and mallee-fowl. Likewise, the memorial walk uses natural features and details of the place, geography, animals and birds, people and the stories that tie people and place together.

Benang, by Kim Scott.

The memorial was the result of almost a decade in careful planning, and is evidence of a positive coming together of the Ravensthorpe farming communities and the Nyoongar people of the south coast, many of whom have been separated from this vital part of their ancestral country for many decades. Yet in some ways, the process of memorialisation that came before the monument was even more important.

In this way, Scott’s novel Taboo is an essential companion to the Kukenarup memorial. The book follows divided communities as they come together around the memorial, and the pain and angst of recognising a past palpably present. Many of these communities are ravaged with drug use, criminality, violence and other effects of intergenerational trauma that trouble Indigenous communities in settler states across the globe.

Scott’s novel is a poetic rendition of the complexities of remembering. Storytelling – shifting, engaged and participatory – is vital to this process. In Taboo, this is symbolised by a singing or “yarning” skeleton, revealed as soft river sands subside and with a story to tell. It’s a paradoxically heartening symbol compared to the blood-soaked traumascape of Scott’s earlier version of the massacre in Benang.

A curl of sand, or ash, in a twisting gust of wind reveal stories that exist to be told. Their time may at last be here.

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The Conversation

Jo Jones is the author of Falling Backwards: Australian Historical Fiction and The History Wars, published August 2018.

Jo Jones, Senior Lecturer in Literary and Cultural Studies, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.