Loss and dislocation in a brutal world
Into that Forest
LOUIS Nowra’s riveting, short, but profound book about two girls reared by Tasmanian tigers asks to be read aloud to teenagers — and adults. There wasn’t a time when I realised I were becoming like a tiger, I guess it just happened, like it were natural. But when I think back there were signs that I had changed, and Becky too. Our sight got better at night . . . Once night-time were as thick as mud to me, but now it were like clear water. And me hearing — I could sit in silence and hear so many things I did not hear before . . . the squeal of a mouse being taken by an owl whose wings sounded like the creaking of a ship . . . the coughing of a distant tiger, like a pipe-smoker clearing his throat of spew . . .
O my, O my, me heart and brain were filled with shock and the most awful pain. I had to suck in me breaths so as not to cry or By Louis Nowra Allen & Unwin, 172pp, $19.99 faint. The lean-to were filled with tiger skins all nailed to walls or hanging from the beams . . . I think I lost most of me language there. I mean where are the words to explain what I seen?
The voice is that of Hannah as an old woman, and it is one of a born storyteller. Her memories of what happened 70 years earlier are lucid, though she starts: ‘‘ Me first thing is an apology — me language is bad cos I lost it and had to learn it again.’’ She may consider her language bad but Nowra’s spare prose is exactly right. The rhythms are hypnotic, the images and metaphors vivid and apt.
After a terrible storm and a boating accident that cost the lives of six-year-old Hannah’s parents, she and her friend Becky survive in the bush with two Tasmanian tigers for four years. Nowra never wastes anything. Hannah also knows about the sound of a creaking ship (as quoted in the passage above) because, disguised as a boy, she works on a whaling ship for a time after she and Becky are found.
Into that Forest is a many-layered, complex book. While focused on the experiences and plight of the girls and the tigers, Nowra weaves in fascinating strands: the excitement and cruelties of whaling; the development of the phonograph through the presence of Ernest, an eccentric figure wandering through the bush recording sounds and songs. We are introduced to the powerful hallucinogenic effects of ambergris, a highly valuable product secreted by whales. It can induce bliss, according to Nowra, though I could find information about only its alluring scent and use in perfumes.
In an interview about his 2008 novel Ice, Nowra said: ‘‘ I’m not a person who likes realism in novels.’’ In this, his first work for younger readers, he fashions a hugely imaginative yet credible fiction from what he states in the author’s note is ‘‘ a factual basis in that I have been to Tasmania many times and consulted a number of sources’’. These are listed.
Nowra’s book is at heart a story of loss, survival and dislocation for the two girls as well as the tigers. The girls survive in the lush but alien Tasmanian bush because they learn and adapt quickly. Communication is reduced to subtle coughs, barks and nips. This is not a tale for the squeamish. Life is brutal. Other animals must be killed, dismembered and eaten raw, including seals in the right season. Tigers and their cubs are ruthlessly hunted and killed. The villain haunting the book is the