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Benevolence - a review

by Trevor Moore

Benevolence

Julie Janson, Magabala Books, ISBN978 1 9259 3663 3, 2020, 345pp

Now, here’s a book that I would not normally have bought and read. I am ashamed to say it. I was in Moruya Books when Janice pressed it into my hand and said that I should read it. She was right. And you should read it too, especially if, like me, you are a privileged white person. The Black Lives Matter movement is forcing many of us to confront some uncomfortable truths about our society and sometimes, to be frank, about ourselves.

Benevolence is a novel that tells a story from the perspective of a Darug woman called Muraging who was born in the early part of the 19th century. She was renamed Mary James by the colonisers whose hypocritical and misguided interpretation of Christianity is a backdrop to Mary’s story. Benevolence is set around the Hawkesbury River area, the home of the Darug people, in Parramatta and Sydney.

The story covers the years 1816 to 1842 and is interwoven with colonial historical events that impacted on the lives of the Darug, and no doubt other, first peoples. One chapter begins “Governor Macquarrie departs for England on the Surry. He is sent off with affection by waibala [the colonising whites]. He is sent off with relief by the families of aboriginal people whom he has massacred.”

This matter of fact description of events runs through the entire narrative. Janson’s writing is clear and concise. She never uses two words when she can get away with one, and she uses short sentences. Her style emphasises the experiences that her heroine suffers and, very occasionally, enjoys. It is two thirds of the way through the book when the proclamation of terra nullius is made, simply and effectively. Terra nullius is a principle that is used to justify a claim to a territory on the basis of its occupation. Australia and Canada are perhaps the most infamous examples, though they are not the only examples. In Australia, as Janson says, it was Richard Bourke who proclaimed that Indigenous Australians could not sell or assign land, nor could an individual person acquire it, unless they were given it by the Crown.

Mary’s story is a journey through her life told through her eyes. The reader follows her as she struggles to live with the dreadful events of colonisation (settlement or invasion - more the latter than the former). It is easy to say that we should view the events of history, whether in Australia or elsewhere, through the eyes of a person alive at that time. This would excuse us from singing the words to the third verse of the 19th century hymn All Things Bright And Beautiful which says:

The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly,

And ordered their estate.

According to this hymn, god is the justification for the state of the world. It is a weak excuse. The British Victorians used a warped view of god to justify not only class distinction but also racial discrimination. There are things that are absolute: a moral code contains principles that should at least be fair and respect differences and exist independent of application. Unfortunately, we are still a long way from that. And it is this that makes Janson’s book required reading for those of us, including me, who do not often think about these things.

Besides the important historical backdrop, the story is a good one that romps along and, because Janson is such a good writer, it is easy to read. I hope that saying it took me only a couple of days to read it is a compliment to its author. I certainly hope so. Janice of Moruya Books is hoping, pandemical restrictions permitting, to invite Julie Janson to one of her literary luncheons. I for one will be there. You should be as well … but only after you have read this book.

Post script: they say things come in threes and along with Janson’s book I am reading two other books, both non-fictional, covering related material. The first is Cassandra Pybus; Truganini, a remarkable woman who lived through the almost total elimination of the Tasmania Aborigines. The second is Alison Alexander’s The Ambitions of Jane Franklin who was the wife of the governor of Tasmania and is described as a Victorian lady adventurer. I will let you know how I go.

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