TEXT review

Where we come from

review by Enza Gandolfo


Janie Conway-Herron
Beneath the Grace of Clouds
Cookatoo Books, Federal, 2010
ISBN: 9780646538396
Pb 217pp AUD30.00

In the prologue to her debut novel, Beneath the Grace of Clouds, Janie Conway-Herron introduces herself as a collector: ‘I collect lost stories, the ones that people forget or the ones that people know but don’t tell.’ In the first of many stories that follows, Conway-Herron tells us of her interaction with a Sydney taxi driver who asks her, ‘Where’re you from?’ When she responds, ‘Sydney’, he remains unsatisfied and unconvinced:

‘No, where were you born?’
... ‘I was born in Sydney.’
‘But your parents, they weren’t born in Sydney,’ he chuckles knowingly.
‘They were actually.’
‘No! I don’t believe it!’ he yells. ‘You look like a Lebanese girl, maybe Spanish or Turkish. That’s it. Your grandparents were Turkish like me ... You should be proud of who you are. All my family are Australian citizens, but my children know where they come from. They’re not ashamed like some.’ (8)

In response to his further probing Conway-Herron reveals that there is some question around the identity of one of her grandmothers, a secret she hasn’t yet discovered:

‘My grandmother … didn’t want anyone to know who she really was.’
… ‘And now you don’t know who you are.’
I smile, looking straight at him for the first time in this short but intimate journey. ‘Sometimes I wonder if it matters.’
‘Perhaps your grandmother was Turkish after all!’ the taxi driver yells after me as I back out of the cab and cross the road.
‘Perhaps,’ I yell back and a small, tight laugh escapes my lips as he shakes his head then moves into the glow of the night-time traffic. (8)

Where do you come from? This is a question that those of us who come from migrant and refugee families – even though we and even our parents might have been born in Australia – are used to being asked. In Australia, it is a common question and most of us answer with some reference to our ancestral birthplace. ‘My parents are Sicilian, but I was born here,’ is my stock answer. For Conway-Herron knowing where you come from means more than just knowing the name of your birthplace or your parents’ birthplace, it means knowing and understanding your history. For her a sense of self, of place, of belonging depends on coming to terms with history and with the stories that have shaped us as individuals and as nations. Both the ones we choose to tell and the ones we try to hide or forget.

Beneath the Grace of Clouds tells the story of three extraordinary women, each one forced to confront the challenges resulting from our violent colonial history. These women could have become victims; certainly other people, mostly men, often had more power over their lives than they did, but they never give up. 

This is a hybrid novel: part fact, part fiction. We are told before we begin the novel that this is ‘a work of fiction’, but one of the three narratives that interweave through the novel is written in the first person voice of autobiography. The character and the author share the same name. What is fiction and what is fact? Conway-Herron is skillfully playing with our desire to know the truth about history, about life, and in so doing forces us to question the histories and the stories that we have inherited.

The other two narratives, while based on extensive archival research, are clearly fiction. One is the story of Elizabeth, an English woman who came out as a convict on the First Fleet and the other of Booron, a Wallamatagul woman, living in and around Sydney cove in the 1780s. These two narratives are written in the third person but their voices are just as strong and individual as Janie’s. By capturing the detail of the women’s everyday lives, their desires and their griefs, Conway-Herron transports us into their worlds.

We meet Booron in 1787 when she is a young girl in a hurry to grow up. The adult women of her clan have left her in charge of a younger child while they go fishing. Instead of watching the child, she watches the women and dreams of the day she will be old enough to go with them. The child playing on his own nearly drowns. In a poignant passage that anticipates much of what is yet to come, one of the older women says to her:

If you’re to become a big woman, a spiritual woman, then the safety of everyone must be uppermost in your mind. Everyone has spirit-life that belongs to the country; you must look after Buladeri’s life as if it is your own. You must never forget him, not even in your dreams. (14)

We follow Booron as the impact of white settlement on her people and her country becomes increasingly evident. Soon disease is rife and many are dying. When Booron gets sick, her family carry her into the white settlement hopeful the ‘ghosts’ who have bought the disease can save Booron’s life. Her life is saved and for a while she lives among the colonists, even meeting and becoming ‘friends’ with Elizabeth, but her first responsibility is to her people and her land and she knows she must leave:

Out of sight of the settlement, Booron stops her canoe and in one swift movement pulls the dress she has been wearing over her head and throws it high in the air. It billows out and flutters as the wind catches at it. Then the deep blue of the river swallows it up as it slowly sinks below the surface, looking like some strange jellyfish as the water closes over it.
Booron looks across at the country which has been part of her people’s lifeblood forever and whispers to the spirits promising them that she will return each turning of the season to take care of country ... (144)

Elizabeth is a child in London when her narrative opens. Though times are difficult and many are destitute, her parents are making just enough money to live but everything changes when Elizabeth’s father dies and she has to go to work. Along with her friend Constance, Elizabeth begins to steal things from the factory to raise money to fulfill their dream to one day own a clothing shop. Elizabeth is caught and sentenced to ‘seven years transportation beyond the seas’. Elizabeth’s narrative traces her life as a convict woman in the colony. We see her struggle with loneliness, with exploitation, with various other hardships; we see through her eyes the life in the settlement and the relationship with indigenous Australians:

Elizabeth suddenly understands. Booron doesn’t want them here, not any of them, not even her, and the friendship she has seen as being special, is revealed in all its frailty. Nothing she can do can change the fact that her presence in this country is unwelcome. (111)

In the first chapter of Janie’s narrative, she is a child surrounded by both her grandmothers. Her maternal grandmother Lossie is descendant from Norwegians. Her paternal grandmother tells everyone she is French, but some 20 years after her death, Janie discovers that her grandmother’s real name was Elise March, not Alivis de Faye, and that she was not French. We follow Janie as she grows up in 1950s, 60s and 70s Australia, as she begins to question her background, as she becomes aware of racism and gets involved in Rock against Racism, as she increases her awareness of the plight of indigenous Australians and the consequences of our colonial past:

My search for my dad’s mother’s background began in earnest in 1981, almost a decade after she died and a year after I had moved to Sydney from Melbourne ... The search was driven by a sense of guilt as I began to understand the consequences of the history of my family’s migration to Australia. The way the comforts of my own life that I had so easily taken for granted were so deeply intertwined with the dispossession and fragmentation of the lives of many of the Aboriginal people I had met. (49)

Janie’s narrative moves between her research, her activism and her personal life as a mother, wife, lover and friend. But these three aspects are never separate for Janie; the personal is always political and political often becomes very personal. This narrative also provides an insight into Rock against Racism, an important movement in Australia in the 80s that has rarely been written about.

In Beneath the Grace of Clouds, Conway-Herron takes on the difficult and complex issues arising from Australia’s colonial history but this is not a novel that wallows in guilt or blame.  By situating indigenous and non-indigenous stories and histories alongside each other, Conway-Herron highlights our interdependence.

In 2006 in the middle of some of the history debates that arose around Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, Stella Clarke wrote in The Australian:

Australian history will never be neat, but it will always be needed. Let’s not imagine that it is only professional historians or politicians for that matter, who approach it with integrity. It’s too important to be left to either. It was lived, made and messed up by people like us, and our best literary artists can do an excellent job of reminding us of this: it’s everybody’s.

Clarke may well have been talking about Beneath the Grace of Clouds. In this novel, history is lived, made and messed up by people just like us. It reminds us to consider the difficulties faced by both the indigenous Australians and the English, especially those who arrived as convicts. By combining the historical narratives with the contemporary ones it also reminds us that mistakes of history have consequences in the present and it is our responsibility to act for change.

Janie Conway-Herron is a senior lecturer in Creative Writing at Southern Cross University. Beneath the Grace of Clouds is her first novel. It is an engaging, brave and sensitively rendered work that challenges each of us to question the stories we have inherited. 


Dr Enza Gandolfo is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Victoria University. Her most recent book is a novel, Swimming (Vanark Press 2009). Enza is also the reviews editor for TEXT.


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Vol 15 No 1 April 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy