Reviewed by Jack Cameron Stanton
‘Remember. You are a patient here. Taking part in our Storyland Project.’
There’s nothing quite like Storyland when it comes to Australian fiction. Its vision is unprecedented, and Catherine McKinnon has launched herself fearlessly with ambition, vigour, and grace. She succeeds in telling five stories that span across genre and style – historical fiction, literary fiction, and science fiction all in one.
Not only is it exciting and prophetic, Storyland evokes an atmospheric power that carries across the lives of a cabin boy, a young girl on a rafting adventure, a self-reliant woman running a dairy farm, a woman whose memories hold the key to a climate catastrophe, and a desperate ex-convict. Echoing the epic storytelling of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Catherine McKinnon manages to weave together her character’s lives, defying time and space as the ghosts of past lives intrude on the future of others.
1796. As they make their way further south, beginning at Sydney Cove then sailing along the coast of Australia, young Will Martin, Matthew Flinders, and Mr Bass must survive the harsh terrain and elements of newly colonised Australia as they explore the incredible country. But even though the voyage becomes unexpectedly dangerous, the two men and the boy allow themselves to dream – the tantalising wonders of exploration and discovery urge them further and further toward danger.
1822. Hawker, an ex-convict, suffers like a slave for his overlords while dreaming about freedom, trying to figure out whether he is capable of murder to earn it.
In the year 1922, Lola looks after her family on a dairy farm, but protecting them becomes increasingly tough when secrets begin to spill out and she ends up broiled in a situation far more complicated: forbidden love.
1998. Young and full of wide-eyed wonder for the natural world, Bell loves secrets but can’t keep them. ‘The thing is,’ she says, ‘if you want to keep a secret, don’t tell me, because somehow the secret will come out.’ But of course Bell seems to find secrets at every turn, and it only gets worse when she finds herself caught between a thief and the man who is being stolen from.
2717. A high-tech machine begins the Storyland Project, retrieving the memories from Nada regarding the climate catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions that devastated Australia in 2033. To do so, Nada must relive the horrors of devastation and death until they unlock the key of its occurrence . . .
Beneath the narratives are acute representations of a country in perpetual flux – racial tensions, white settler misconceptions of Indigenous Australians, a doomed, changing climate, the hierarchy of master and slave, the capacity of secrets to destroy, and the vast mystery of the unknown. McKinnon doesn’t shy away from these fronts, displaying the evolution of Australia through history, beginning with colonial roots and propelling into the imagined future.
One thing that’s worth special mention is the way McKinnon nails the voices of her varying characters with conviction. The explorers in 1796 are rugged, irreverent, and ugly-natured, while young Bell is eloquent and fascinated with the world around her. The ex-convict has a voice heavy with regret and hope. In this spirit, Storyland offers something for every reader.
The land is a book, waiting to be read – there are very few novels that can claim to pull off what McKinnon has done in Storyland. With so many stories the book is thrilling, prophetic, and interwoven. Each character has their charm but the real protagonist is the land itself, morphing across time and space according to those who inhabit it, growing old and frail, experiencing rebirth, then withering away altogether.
About the author
Catherine McKinnon lives in rural New South Wales and is a novelist and playwright. Most recently, she was co-winner of the Griffith Review Novella 111 Award, 2015. She grew up in South Australia, and, after studying at Flinders University, worked as a theatre director and/or writer. Her play Tilt was selected for the 2010 National Playwriting Festival, and As I Lay Dreaming won the 2010 Mitch Matthews Award. Her short stories, reviews, and articles have appeared in Transnational Literature, Text Journal, RealTime, and Narrative. She teaches performance and creative writing at the University of Wollongong.