Book Review: Cicada by Moira McKinnon

Moira McKinnon
Allen and Unwin

Some of the best novels I have read have been by first time novelists.  Perhaps this has something to do with how much work goes in to getting a publisher to put their faith in you.  I think that Cicada by Moira McKinnon is a shining example of this.  It is a lyrical novel full of authentic Australian scenes, and on top of this, it is immensely enjoyable.  It is my great pleasure to invite you all to help my new friend Marlish Glorie to launch this book into the world on March the 7th 2014 at the home of the Fellowship of Australian Writers W.A.  But first, let me tell you more about the book.

It is 1919, and Lady Emily Lidscombe is in labour with her first child.  The process is gruelling.  She is assisted only by her dark-skinned maids Wirritjil and Blackgirl, whom she regards as savages, but the women know what they are doing and finally, Joseph Lidscombe is born.  But something is wrong- Joseph is dark skinned, and in horror Emily realises that she may not be able to keep her night of passion with the Aboriginal stockman, Jawandi Jurulu, a secret from her husband.  After a number of days sleeping and waking, always disoriented, Emily comes to to find that her husband William has flown into a jealous rage.  He claims the baby has died by natural causes, but when Emily digs up the body, she finds his throat has been cut.  Jurulu has been shot.  Fearing for her life, Emily flees into the remote outback with only her nightdress, and her maid Wirritjil for company.  If she wants to survive, she's going to need to learn to understand the "savages" and their ways.

This novel has echoes of great classic Australian literature.  The most stark comparisons for me would be Doris Pilkington's Rabbit Proof Fence and Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock.  Thematically, it covers the territory of fraught historical tensions between indigenous and European cultures, particularly in the realms of law and relationship, showing the danger and the heartbreak when these two worlds collide.  At times, it feels as if McKinnon is arguing that the two worlds can never coexist, but at others, she shows how each party can receive benefits from friendship with the other- Emily survives only because Wirritjil helps her to navigate the land, but without the help of Emily and later her sister Katharyn, Wirritjil would be lost in the European justice system forever.

One thing that does strike me about this book is a sense of repetition.  Certain images, such as pandanus plants along the river, and Emily constantly waking, revive with a half poetic, half accidental consistency.  Nonetheless, the book is compelling and readable, particularly the scenes in which the women are forced to hide from their pursuers.

I think this is an excellent novel and I look forward to its publication in March.

You can come along and meet Moira, and hear her speak about Cicada at an exclusive event at the home of FAWWA

What: Cicada Book Launch
When: March 7, 2014- 6.30pm
Where: FAWWA; Mattie Furphy House, Allen Park, Swanbourne

Some light refreshments provided.

Books will be available for sale on the night, thanks to Bookcaffe Swanbourne