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.

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