Ellipticity

C.K. Stead

  • Remembering Babylon by David Malouf
    Chatto, 200 pp, £14.99, May 1993, ISBN 0 7011 5883 2

Gemmy Fairly appears at the edge of a small mid-19th-century settlement out of the ‘empty’ north Queensland hinterland. He is 29 and has spent 16 years among Aborigines who rescued him after he was cast overboard from a passing ship. He has almost forgotten his own language, and has acquired the semi-mystical consciousness of the tribes-people. He is taken in by the McIvor family – Jock and Ellen, their small daughters Janet and Meg and nephew Lachlan Beattie. Soon his presence is causing concern. The community lives in a state of apprehension (what is feared is not at all clear) about the blacks, and it is thought Gemmy might still be communicating with them. There is also a feeling that his ‘whiteness’ has been compromised: that he is in some sense ‘unclean’. The McIvors’ nearest neighbour and friend, Barney Mason, is particularly anxious, and his unscrupulous roust-about, Andy McKillop, who sees two black men visit Gemmy and talk with him, plays on these fears.

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