This novel by David Malouf is a story of belonging and identity, or rather about community and belonging when the limits of identity are imposed by others. Gemmy is a white boy, raised by aboriginal people, who wanders into a white settlement in 1840s Australia. His appearance immediately scares the settlers who presume him to be black and then are suspicious of his ways when they realise he is a white boy ‘gone native’.
For Gemmy the struggle is to fit in when he no longer feels as if he belongs in any community. The white settlers try to feel at ease with him in their midst. Some feel he is a spy or that he must have attacked other communities. Farmer Jock McIvor and his nephew Lachlan are instrumental in reaching out to the young man but, in doing so, they risk their own position in the village.
The novel shows the fragile nature of identity. The settlers are forging a new life in a new land in a place that is at the edge of civilisation. To protect themselves they are fiercely hostile to outsiders, young white men who have lived with the natives being especially suspect. At the base of their concerns is the thought that if this white man could drift away from their way of life, then maybe it could happen to them.
‘Remembering Babylon’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?