Allen & Unwin £6.99

Riding the Black Cockatoo, By John Danalis

A stirring quest to return an Aboriginal skull

Brisbane-born John Danalis grew up in a home in which, because his veterinarian father was a collector of eclectic ephemera, an Aboriginal skull stood for decades on the mantelpiece. The family called it Mary, although the skull turned out to be that of a male, killed by syphilis, a disease imported to Australia by European settlers. Mary ' had been found in the state of Victoria by the author's uncle, another vet, when Aboriginal burial sites were being bulldozed for building projects – and so, unusually, the Danalis family knew Mary's provenance.

In 2005, Danalis, "the dreamer of the family", married with two young daughters but still in search of a purpose in life at 40, was on a university teacher-training course. Partly because he knew that an indigenous- studies module was coming up, he started to think seriously about Mary. And, driven by a sudden determination which he found hard to explain even to himself – let alone to his bemused parents – Danalis then decided that Mary must go back to his people and be put to rest in peace.

Thus begins an extraordinary journey for Danalis and Mary, starting with the head of indigenous studies at the university and leading, eventually, to a hand-over ceremony and an 800km journey to visit Mary's final resting place on Aboriginal lands. Along the way, Danalis's intensely moving account describes his meeting many 21st-century people of Aboriginal descent, discovering (and writing self-deprecatingly about his own former ignorance and prejudices) that, for example, they live in ordinary houses, use computers and eat Thai food. In short, that they are people – not biological specimens, as museums around the world still regard the thousands of bodies stolen from Australia.

Moreover, Australian Aborigines are generally a religious people for whom the disturbance of bodily remains means perpetual unrest. So every bone, skull or skeleton which goes "home" matters. "I'd begun to realise that Aboriginal people feel death very differently to white folk," writes Danalis. "It's as though death is almost a living thing: a very real ongoing energy."

He is struck by coincidences, too – such as one of the key indigenous contacts involved in repatriation being the father of a star player in Danalis Senior's favourite football team, which, unexpectedly, wins the older white man round to the cause. Then there is Danalis's first, chance, sighting of the iconic black cockatoo. And the fact that one of Danalis's daughters is called Bianca. Fiona, an indigenous researcher and campaigner from whom he borrows a traditional black cockatoo head-dress for the hand-over ceremony, has a child named Ebony. Soon the "white" child and the "black" one are playing together. Danalis's quietly thoughtful but spellbinding account, which I read compulsively in less than 24 hours, is full of these neat, unexpected twists.

The book is also strong on Danalis's own state of mind and health. After Mary's repatriation he becomes ill with depression, and his chilling description of the treatment and its adverse effects, as well as how he eventually gets better, deserves to be read by anyone working in mental health. By the end of the book, Danalis, having long abandoned the teacher-training course, has found his real career. He is a writer and an educator working for repatriation. So the book is, effectively, a voyage of discovery for the author as well as the reader.

Most books are full of echoes of other books, but the deliciously fresh Riding the Black Cockatoo is not remotely like anything else I have ever read. Even the imagery sparkles. How can you not enjoy lines such as "Speaking with her was like trying to suck sap from a 100-year-old telephone pole" – or the description of ancient trees as having "gnarly knots and bark bunions"?

Despite its newness, Riding the Black Cockatoo is a GCSE English set text with effect from this autumn, having been chosen, very unusually, before it was even published in the UK. I suspect a lot of teachers and teenagers will be blown away by it.

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?