‘Cicada’ is Moira McKinnon’s first novel and what an epic it is. Moira is a doctor who has worked extensively in the Kimberley. The landscape and the people obviously left their mark, and this is not the first time she has written about the area—her essay, ‘Who Killed Matilda’, won the Australian Book Review/Calibre prize in 2011.
‘Cicada’ begins with the aristocratic Lady Emily Lidscombe in labour at ‘Cicada Springs’, her husband’s property in the Kimberley. She gives birth to a ‘brown’ baby:
‘Emily stared at his wide nose, his creamy brown skin with fine downy hairs drying light and soft. She wanted to drop him, to let him go. She was afraid of him.’
Realising he is not the father, Emily’s husband, William, becomes violent. After he kills the baby and the baby’s indigenous father, Jurulu, Emily and the aboriginal servant, Wirritjil, escape fearing for their lives. Emily is naïve about the outback and weakened by having given birth only a day or two earlier. She relies on Wirritjil to lead her and keep her alive—find water; hunt lizards; kill snakes; spear fish; even lance Emily’s infected foot.
I loved this book for many reasons. Firstly, it is distinctly Australian. Even the title—’Cicada’—that insect that provides the soundtrack to every Aussie barbecue, cricket match and bush picnic.
Then there’s the Kimberley. It’s easy to see the author’s reverence for the land, and its flora and fauna. The reader feels immersed as they read:
‘The grassland thinned and they came to paperbarks, low and scraggly, strum across dusty clay pans, with nothing to give but the promise of exuberant life once the rain began.’
‘A flock of sulphur-crested cockatoos decorated the tree’s great branches like flowers.’
‘There was no moon, just the stars in the multiple depths of black sky …’
Most of all, this book gives insight into aboriginal culture and knowledge. As the reader follows Emily and Wirritjil through the Kimberley, we see Wirritjil’s relationship with the land. She not only knows the country—how to find water and food, and how to hide their tracks and confuse their pursuers—but she knows where to find the spirits. She understands the land and how to work with it.
‘Wirritjil worked steadily … Emily watched her movements, unhurried and almost languid, it was as if she was in a continuous dance, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, flowing through the day.’
Emily is injured and weakened, and the reader feels the effects of the unrelenting heat and harsh terrain:
‘She took the water bag from the brumby’s neck, and waited. Wirritjil came close and felt Emily’s breath, coming and going as if in sleep. She held the water to Emily’s lips and tipped the bag slightly. The water dribbled down Emily’s chin.’
The two women converse as they walk, Wirritjil’s English being interspersed with her own language. I found it handy to bookmark the glossary at the back so I could easily flick back and forth.
Emily develops a respect for Wirritjil, although never truly befriends her. It is interesting to watch her learn from Wirritjil, and see her gradually shed her ‘white’ ways and gain strength. In the beginning, she turns away from the native food:
‘(Wirritjil) picked two branches from the shrub of long grey leaves with yellow blossoms and spread them to bake in the sun. ‘Miss,’ she said and sucked on the bottom of the tube-shaped flower. She handed a flower to Emily. Emily refused and looked away.’
However, she learns and adapts:
‘(Emily) waited just inside the shade of the mernda tree for the kulurtuk pigeon. He was used to her and it was a simple shot from close range. It stunned him and she hit him hard, cooked him quickly singeing the feathers away, and ate him, saying thank you with every second breath.’
Then there is ‘the chase’, which adds a thriller element to the story.
The book doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects—white-black relations in the inter-war years; female infidelity; and domestic violence. It depicts Australia in the 1930s, when many whites had little respect for the aboriginal people, when a black man could be murdered by a white man without consequence.
I’d describe this story as a tribute to the Kimberley. It is also a tribute to indigenous culture and highlights how little we, as a predominantly white society, have understood the depth of indigenous knowledge and skill. Wirritjil is the true heroine of this story.
Cicada, by Moira McKinnon, Allen and Unwin, 2014 $29.99
This is my fourth review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2014.