After Story by Larissa Behrendt review – trauma and secrets unspool on literary tour of England

·5 min read

“For Indigenous people, culture equals life,” Terri Janke wrote this month. Culture is not a discrete thing, to be observed at the theatre or behind museum glass. It can’t be sealed off from place, history, or family – it is these things.

This principle is at the heart of academic and filmmaker Larissa Behrendt’s significant body of work, and of her third novel, also out this month.

Related: Terri Janke: the Australian lawyer trying to stop Indigenous cultural theft

After Story sees Jasmine, an idealistic Indigenous lawyer, take her (somewhat bemused) mother Della on a literary tour of England. Behrendt’s lens is ostensibly focused on “British” culture, but parallel histories emerge in the novel’s seamless cuts between past and present: stories forgotten, repressed or actively erased from Jasmine and Della’s past, and their country’s.

During their visit, as a media storm builds around the disappearance of a white girl from Hampstead Heath, memories of the abduction of Jasmine’s sister Brittany resurface with a fresh sting – a sonic boom of indictment in the disparate response to each case. Decades of family secrets start to unspool.

Della, meanwhile, is unburdened by the various pretensions of her fellow tourists about the “right” way to engage with their itinerary’s colonial canon – so she does so heart-first. “All these ways of punishing people who were poor,” she marvels on their Dickens-inspired tour of the foundling museum. “Sometimes, like I know, you can love them and want to keep them and they’re just taken from you.” Her mind, like the reader’s, goes immediately to the generations of children forcibly taken from their families – that massive, knowing fracture of culture from which Australia has not recovered. More and more, she also thinks of Brittany. Della’s grief is raw, sometimes too intimate to bear. It’s delicately handled by Behrendt, who resists the easy catharsis of sentimental or confessional modes to allow her character some privacy. What is revealed of Della’s pain is tactile and quiet, “spreading out like dark honey spilt over a tablecloth”.

Jasmine, fighting to free herself of “the suffocating facts” of this inheritance of loss, has clung to literature as a beacon of self-definition. These sustaining daydreams – of Austens and Woolfs; that her other sister, Leigh-Anne, might one day be “a Vanessa to my Virginia” – are also complicated sources of alienation and shame inviting her to dismiss her own life, “so small, parochial”. But prefigured in After Story’s dual mother-daughter narration is the capacity to hold opposing truths.

Behrendt is able to both celebrate the power of Shakespeare’s or Brontë’s art and mourn the vast cost of their colonial transplantation. She suggests that a Eurocentric
“culture” divides everyone – including Europeans – from culture. Literature’s “ideas and ideals” both drive and damage us, an illusory yardstick with which to beat ourselves. Yet this is also a love letter to books as technologies of change, that help us “understand where bias and prejudice hide [and] create a new way of thinking”. If the question is what stories might help us decolonise, Behrendt finds the answer in all of them, from the Magna Carta, to Mrs Dalloway, to the fragments Della salvages from memories of her mother’s cousin Elaine and writes in the notebook on her hotel bedside table.

Mostly from offstage, Aunty Elaine anchors the novel, embodying the power Aboriginal women hold as knowers and keepers of tradition. Even as the trip renews Della and Jasmine’s connection to their own stories, they realise they’ve taken her knowledge for granted. “It was slipping from me and I didn’t have a museum to keep it in,” Della says. To survive, culture must be lived, Behrendt argues – it is both verb and noun. That this epiphany only unfolds in the seat of colonial violence is the book’s major tension – presumably intentionally. It risks repeating the same hierarchical fantasy that positions England as a “homecoming”, “silvery” trees as inferior to “lush emerald green”, “culture” as coming from somewhere else – indicative of the way colonialist structures ignore or sideline ancient legacies, or steal them wholesale. (“You’ve got to be pretty cheeky to take a whole temple,” Della notes with dark humour at the British Museum.)

But mother and daughter’s reclaiming of their role as storytellers can also be seen as an act of cultural repatriation, for which Behrendt is an urgent advocate. Connecting to culture, as in Tara June Winch’s The Yield, is a condition for healing, for transcending centuries of unspoken rules about “who was expected to succeed, who was expected to fail”. As Della links a cathedral’s “magisterial” feeling of the sacred to the bush, or notes the colour of English brick “reminding you you’re on someone else’s country”, she gestures to the potential of decoupling knowledge from institution – and a more respectful, curious way of encountering the culture of another.

Behrendt’s pleasure in the Anglophone world of the tour is sincere (at times skirting perilously close to guide-book or history lecture territory). But she skewers the contemporary Australian hypocrisy that can show reverence for the “old ghosts” of a Roman burial site (or Cornish graveyard) while failing to establish a national keeping place for its own traditional owners, or letting sites “older than the pyramids and Stonehenge” be blown up. In honouring English history’s depth, Behrendt asks, sharply, why Indigenous Australia should be expected to just “move on”.

These smouldering questions are leavened by characters who are funny, complex and real. Behrendt allows their feuds and struggles to be painful without being corrosive, reminding us everyone needs time and grace to grieve in their own way. To make peace with the moments others fail, might be to allow yourself to fail, to be imperfect. Strand by strand, she gently lays bare the discomfort and hope of a mother and daughter – strands of a story they “can tie together, that can be bound into something tangible”.

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