BOOK REVIEW / The black white-feller: 'Remembering Babylon' - David Malouf: Chatto, 14.99

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THIS NOVEL breaks into speech with a stammered Malapropism: 'Do not shoot . . . I am a B-b-british object]' After all that he has been subject to, though, David Malouf's strange hero might well be excused the odd verbal slip. In the mid-1840s, Gemmy Fairley, then a 13-year-old ship's boy from a disturbed background, was cast ashore in the far north of Australia, where he was taken in by the Aborigines. The novel opens 16 years later at the moment when the new white settlers in the region are suddenly confronted by this far from settling phenomenon - an in- between creature, 'a black white-feller', who seems a fleshing-out of their unspoken fears.

This excellent book is not the first of Malouf's fictions to dramatise, in an edge-of-the-world setting, an exemplary encounter between traditionally civilised men and a seemingly uncultivated, cross-species conundrum. An Imaginary Life (1978) imagined the Roman poet Ovid, cut off in far-flung exile among an alien people, meeting and becoming obsessed by a child who is discovered living wild with wolves. In his relationship with the boy, the roles of teacher and taught are, Ovid comes to realise, increasingly reversed, the sophisticated urban poet led through areas of experience hitherto closed to him, his exile not a privation but an education.

Remembering Babylon resists coming to quite such consolatory conclusions. Instead, through the tremors of unease which Gemmy's presence sends through the settlement, Malouf manages to convey a superbly heightened sense (at once pungent and delicate) of what life was like in such pioneer communities: the underlying ache of homelessness; the touchiness about social standing; the existential dizzy spells. Conjuring up a world in which lushness and quick, overwrought bloom are swiftly followed by dank putrescence with nowhere for the soul to rest between, he shows how Gemmy's bizarre cultural predicament exacerbates the settlers' feeling of insecurity at 'being in a place that had not yet revealed all its influences'.

With economy and deftness of touch, Malouf evokes a whole nascent society, from the comic Governor of Queensland (who is loftily uninterested in anything so mundane as facts about the country, being cocooned in an unreal world of classical analogy) to the housewife washing out an old frock with a faded pattern of larkspurs and experiencing a 'little pang' that she might never again see one. As the rift grows between the McIvor family who have taken charge of Gemmy and the increasingly suspicious community, the disillusioning sense that men may be less open than they appear casts its blighting shadow over the settlement.

The unburying of this dark self-mistrust is offset in the novel by a contrary impulse, a miraculous leap, or escape-leap, into another form of consciousness. This is best illustrated here in the stunningly realised sequence where young Janet McIvor, straying near a hive, finds herself totally covered in a 'plushy, alive fur' of bees: in those moments of unbreathing, stock-still surrender, she feels that her mind has become one with the 'communally single' mind of the swarm. It was to this girl and her cousin Lachlan that Gemmy first appeared, balanced with his curled toes on the perimeter fence. Their responses then were emblematic of different types of authority: Lachlan raised a make-believe gun, while Janet threw up a gaze of such recognising intensity that Gemmy felt it might have held him there forever, had he submitted to its power. This moment of suspended unsteadiness, which 'settled' the fate of all three, stands as a recurring image: Gemmy is a vertiginous vision of something their land could become, hung there against a pulsing sky before falling into the disappointment of history.

He also falls from view, his story left inconclusive. At our last sight of him, he is standing with a sheaf of papers in a downpour, claiming back his life by allowing the rain to wash away the written record into which he thinks it has been 'magicked'. With writing as distinguished as Malouf's, the idea that prose has such powers does not seem so far-fetched.