Loss and dis­lo­ca­tion in a bru­tal world

Into that For­est

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Agnes Nieuwenhuizen

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

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