TEXT review

The province of history is a debatable country

review by Emily Sutherland


Jones FallingBackwards__History Wars_CVR_Front_1024x1024.jpg

Jo Jones
Falling Backwards: Australian Historical Fiction and the History Wars
UWA Publishing, Crawley WA 2018
ISBN: 9781742589916
Pb 250pp AUD39.99


The vexed question of what distinguishes historical novels from other genres has yet to be resolved. From the time of Homer, and looking forward to the more complex treatment of history by postmodern and post-postmodern novels, many definitions have been offered. None has completely satisfied. When the history in question is a significant event such as the Holocaust or, in the case of Falling Backwards: Australian Historical Fiction and the History Wars, ‘cultural and political significance … of the period known as the History Wars’ (3), then wider considerations come into force. In tackling this topic Jo Jones raises many questions and refrains from answering all of them. This is an excellent thing in an academic text.

In discussing and critiquing five works relevant to the 1970s and 1980s Jones includes the notion of the political significance of the narrative form. As she explains:

This volume investigates the cultural and political significance of the Australian historical novels written during the period known as the History Wars, in which historians, politicians, writers and commentators entered into an aggressive, at times acrimonious debate about the nature of Australia’s colonial past. (3)

Her introduction examines, in some detail, early colonial history, the development of the Australian nation, and the influence of the Enlightenment. Inherent in this examination is the acceptance of the Australia’s ‘own particular enactment of genocide’ (16) and how through this acceptance we must seek to come to terms with the brutality, injustice and interracial conflicts in our past.

Of the five writers Jones examines in detail, Kate Grenville is perhaps the one who has stirred up the most controversy in  her novel The Secret River (2005).Grenville herself has contributed to that controversy in her detailed explanation of the process of choosing to tell the story of her ancestor as fiction.   Her claim that this is also an historical account earned her the ire of historians such as Inga Glendinnen and Mark McKenna, who ‘were keen   to define themselves against such a fiction, repeatedly defending the importance of scholarly rigour and empirical process’ (111). Jones expresses reservations: ‘This [fresh understanding] concluding reflection expresses a very earnest sense of the learning process undergone, but the impulse to narrative closure remains problematical’ (96). The debate between historians who jealously guard their discipline and the writer who creates a narrative after careful research (as opposed to the bodice-ripping version of so much historical fiction) is an ongoing one. In choosing to write a novel rather than a family history Grenville has granted herself greater narrative licence, and this should be acknowledged. Jones suggests that Grenville has presented a traditional, and therefore subjective, approach to early colonial history. Jones writes that: ‘when we consider this scene [the massacre] and the alleged allegorical shape of the novel, the implication is that the majority of Australians who took part in genocidal violence did so unwillingly…’ (105).

In the literature/history conflict Jones states that, like Grenville, Malouf has ‘expressed his belief that fiction can bring the reader “closer” to past events and that the process of imaginatively “fleshing out” history creates a more insightful version of the past’ (138).

Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish (2001) is described by Jones as ‘a postmodern experimental narrativisation of a colonial past as it is applied to a political critique of the national present’ (58). Continuing ‘…Gould accepts that the notion of “saving” history is ultimately impossible, as, even when every effort  is made to construct a “true history” it will continue shift and change’ (75). As an experiment in narrativisation Gould’s Book of Fish  is judged to be ‘a more suitable form of storytelling to represent the past’ (76) than Grenville’s book. It may be that Flanagan, concerned as he is with the political debate, has achieved greater condemnation of our early history than has Grenville, whose emphasis is on the telling of the story.

However in Falling Backwards Jones has extended the discussion far beyond the simple literature/history question to examine the specific work of five writers within a political and philosophical framework, especially as has been highlighted during the so-called History Wars. The choice of language becomes important in giving the reader deeper insight. Kim Scott’s Benang (1999)searches to reconnect with his culture through poetic language because ‘poetry held a privileged position, similar to the sense of place and authenticity represented by the native vernacular or mother tongue’ (174). Rodney Hall’s Yandilli Trilogy (1994) is described as gothic, a tradition which truly captures some of the horrors of the past. In a discussion that reaches beyond the superficial, Jones deconstructs the concepts of Gothic and the Enlightenment against psychoanalytic theories, ethical and political potential.

How does all this reflect on our understanding of Reconciliation, race identity, recognition of past wrongs and integrity in story telling? These are complex and difficult questions requiring complex and difficult answers. Jo Jones provides a thoughtful and disciplined approach to many of the questions and opens a number of areas which invite further development.




Dr Emily Sutherland is an Honorary Research Fellow, School of Humanities, Flinders University, South Australia. She has also published novels, short stories, poetry and drama.


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Vol 23 No 1 April 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker