It may have a body on the first page, but The Boundary is no ordinary crime novel. Yes, there is a lawyer-hero (the troubled Miranda Eversley), there is a good cop and a bad cop, bad lawyers, a weak government official, a battered wife, and an angry community. But into this mix Nicole Watson adds generous slices of Brisbane’s Indigenous history, and a supernatural being called Red Feathers.
The Boundary of the title still exists in Brisbane’s present-day suburb of West End. Nowadays called Boundary Street, in the nineteenth century it marked the dividing line between the local Indigenous community, the Corrowa, and the whites:
During the day, blacks could enter the town; indeed, they were expected to. Most white families employed black domestics, gardeners, cooks. But as night descended, West End’s streets emptied of the Corrowa. Only the domestics stayed, quietly eating their dinner by the woodpile …
There was a curfew at 4 pm each day, and a Native Policeman patrolled the boundary with his horse and a stockwhip.
In the twenty-first century, the Corrowa’s relationship with their land is central to their Native Title claim in the Federal Court. Miranda Eversley is the lawyer arguing their case, and she has devoted six years of her life to it. But as the novel opens, Justice Bruce Brosnan hands down his judgement: the Corrowa have not demonstrated to the satisfaction of the law that they have continued ‘to practise their traditional laws and customs’ uninterrupted since white settlement, as the Act requires. Thus the claim is rejected, Native Title extinguished, and the government free to sell the land to a waiting developer, Coconut Holdings.
The evening after he delivers his verdict, Justice Brosnan is murdered. Over the ensuing days, others involved in the case are killed. Red feathers are left beside the bodies.
Nicole Watson worked as a lawyer for the National Native Title Tribunal, and has said, ‘I began with the optimistic belief that I could make a positive contribution to the communities involved. However, I quickly realised that the native title system made this aim all but elusive. [In creating The Boundary] I imagined a scenario in which Indigenous people seized control of recognition from the legal arena.’
The Corrowa’s history is this novel’s touchstone: hunted off their land, families were broken up, shunted into missions, enslaved into service on homesteads and stations where wages could be kept back by a corrupt overseer and beatings and rapes were unrecorded.
The community’s experience of Native Title exemplifies the paradox of a mechanism created to redress past injustices that instead enshrines them.
The past may be the novel’s touchstone, but its present is alive with real-life references, too. The charismatic Aboriginal lawyer Dick Payne, who opposes the Corrowa’s land claim, has Noel Pearson-esque views about ‘sit down money’ and sending Indigenous children to boarding schools. (White politicians love him.) One of the policemen has covered up a death in custody that echoes Palm Island’s notorious Doomadgee case. Government money that has been set aside as reparation for past unpaid wages is corralled into a pet project of doubtful benefit. And through it all runs the resistance and resilience of the Corrowa, a community still intact and with a strong sense of its own identity, despite everything that is thrown at them.
The story unfolds from different characters’ points of view, but Miranda is the focus. Her personal life is on the edge, and the loss of the Corrowa’s case tips her into a serious drinking problem.
The writing is passionate but uneven. It can be simple and beautiful – Her fingers are gentle, caressing Miranda’s forehead like water gliding across a stone – and it can be refreshingly direct, as in the succinct explanation of the operation of Native Title. But it can also feel overwrought: Dick’s face is a bomb of a car whose rattling panels threaten to fling into the air once the speedometer reaches one hundred.
There is no question that this is a novel that wears its heart on its sleeve, and while that can lend a didactic tone, it also gives the narrative much of its power.
The supernatural strand is an organic part of the story and tantalisingly handled. Red Feathers is visible only to one of the Corrowa elders, Auntie Ethel, and many of the community are sceptical about Auntie Ethel’s claims. Nevertheless, Auntie knows things she shouldn’t – couldn’t – know.
There is a resolution to the mystery of the murders, which carries within it a mystery of its own. But in many ways the whodunnit aspect is secondary; the bigger questions the novel raises are about how – or even if – past injustices can be redressed, and how individuals respond. The Boundary provides no easy answers, but allows Auntie Ethel a glimmer of hope: She knows that Red Feathers believes change is always possible, so long as one draws breath. For Miranda, the answer is more personal and more complex.
The Boundary offers a vivid picture of Brisbane past and present, wrapped up in a page-turning thriller. Polemical, passionate and deeply felt, it is a novel of irresistible energy and an urgent cry for justice.
Nicole Watson The Boundary UQP 2011 276pp PB $24.95
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