Blasts from the Past: Remembering Babylon by David Malouf (1993)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

David Malouf is one of those writers who seems to be able to turn his hand to anything: fiction, poetry, libretti – he’s mastered them all. My favourite novel by him – so far – is the Booker Prize shortlisted, IMPAC Award-winning Remembering Babylon. It’s both an examination of the arrival of an outsider in a small, close-knit but barely established community and a commentary on colonialism, filled with vibrantly poetic images.

On a sweltering day in the mid-nineteenth century, a strange and ragged figure dances out of the Australian bush and into the lives of a small group of white settlers. Gemmy Fairley has spent almost sixteen years living with aborigines. At first his eccentricities are greeted with the amusement of novelty but in time the settlement becomes riven with suspicion. As the settlers attempt to impose their own kind of order on an environment which they perceive as hostile, many of them find Gemmy’s presence both unsettling and threatening. Where do the loyalties of this man, who is white like them but seems to have more in common with aborigines, lie? As Gemmy tries to find a place for himself in the community, friendships are strained to breaking point, brutality begins to surface but one family finds a new way to look at the world.

Gemmy’s arrival threatens the settlers’ fragile identities who Malouf has described as ‘a community that wouldn’t otherwise have held together but for their whiteness and Europeanness’. Strangers as they are in a strange land, they are faced with a man who seems to be is neither truly British nor Australian but a disturbing amalgamation of the two, a worrying prospect of what might become of them and their children. Every word counts in this slim dazzlingly vivid, novella. It’s a superb book, as novels by poets so often are, and it seems particularly apt right now.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

7 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: Remembering Babylon by David Malouf (1993)

  1. vicky blake

    I’ve just been to see the film Nocturnal Animals – it’s based on the book Tony and Susan. I remember finding the book irritating. It holds the reader at arms length and is very clever-clever and I’ve just been to see the film and I found that irritating but in an entirely different way! I’m not quite sure how this relates to your post but it came to mind after reading it!

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I’m not sure either but we can agree on Tony and Susan, I think. Started it but failed to see what all the fuss was about!

      Reply
  2. bookbii

    I really enjoy these blast from the past entries, so good to hear about books which are out of the news but well worth reading. This sounds like a lovely read, lyrical and intelligent.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Malouf writes beautifully, Belinda, and this one seemed to fit the upheavals in our world at the moment somehow.

      Reply
  3. Poppy Peacock

    Love the sound of this – both context and promise of dazzling prose. Loving the blast from the past entries too… heard over the summer that these days you’ve a 3 months window to sell your book before it risks falling into the abyss – rather depressing, so do like to hear folk champion older books not just the new and shiny.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Thanks, Poppy. I think it’s got harder to get on to the backlist now but it’s the solid backbone that runs through the book trade and keeps it upright.

      Reply
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