I read a lot of very good books for work. Sometimes something great comes along. This book is it.
Fraser Island, 1882. The population of the Badtjala people is in sharp decline following a run of brutal massacres. German scientist Louis Müller lives on the island with his daughter Hilda. They are both grieving – Hilda’s mother died and is buried on the island.
Louis has offered to sail three Badtjala people – Bonny, Jurano and Dorondera – to Europe to perform to huge crowds. The proud and headstrong Bonny agrees, hoping to bring his people’s plight to the Queen of England. Paris Savages opens as Hilda, her father and their three Badtjala friends are preparing to leave. It is a difficult farewell, leaving land and loved ones behind, but the group begins their journey to belle-époque Europe to perform in Hamburg, Berlin, Paris and eventually London. While crowds in Europe are enthusiastic to see the unique dances, singing, fights and pole climbing from the oldest culture in the world, the attention is relentless, and the fascination of scientists intrusive. When disaster strikes, Bonny must find a way to return home.
Paris Savages is a beautiful, almost lyrical read that captures both the spirit of the Badtjala characters and the horror they endured. Masterfully drawn characters reel you in and a sense of place, each place, pervades the page.
Through alternating chapters, the story is narrated by Hilda, her diary, and also a ghost storyteller, offering Bonny’s perspective:
“And what of Bonny and his friends on this last night on Badtjala soil, once the fire had turned to coals and the dancing had stopped?
If there was an observer there to report, a ghostly figure who could gaze secretly inside their huts, what story might that ghost tell?
Intelligence, empathy and brutal honesty permeates this exquisitely written book. This is a story of love, bravery, culture, and the fight against injustice. Paris Savages brings a little-known part of history to blazing life. In her author notes, award-winning novelist Katherine Johnson gives insight into ethnic shows, or humans zoos, which were big business in Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While the book is fiction, it is based on a true story, and a life-size plaster cast of Bonny remains at the Musee des Confluences in Lyon, France. Johnson is doing a doctorate in this area, so the research that has gone into this story is outstanding.
While it is a heart-wrenching read, there are some moments of real humour here too. I laughed out loud when Hilda’s father introduces the Badtjala performers to an audience in Germany and then turns to Bonny and Jurano and in their language tells them that, “These fat people have come to see you.” He’s mixed up the Badtjala words for ‘fortunate’ and ‘fat’. Hilda waits for the Badtjala performers to tease him about his mistake, “… yet Bonny and Jurano maintained their composure, perhaps seeing her father’s comment as a statement of fact.”
I will be telling everyone to read this phenomenal novel. Paris Savages is beautiful, heartbreaking and utterly sublime. A stunning achievement. I can say in all honesty that Paris Savages is my favourite book of the year.
About the author:
Katherine Johnson is the author of three previous novels: Pescador’s Wake (Fourth Estate, 2009), The Better Son (Ventura Press, 2016) and Matryoshka (Ventura Press, 2018). Her manuscripts have won Varuna Awards and Tasmanian Premier’sLiterary Prizes. The Better Son was longlisted for both the Indie Book Awards and the Tasmania Book Prize. Katherine holds both arts and science degrees, has worked as a science journalist, and published feature articles for magazines including Good Weekend. Katherine lives in Tasmania with her husband and two children. She recently completed a PhD, which forms the basis of her latest novel, Paris Savages.