Inheritance

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Carole Wilkinson, Inheritance, Walker Books Australia, September 2018, 240 pp., RRP $17.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781760650360

Inheritance was not a comfortable book to read, but it was a significant and thought-provoking one. It deals with the massacre of the Djargurd balug people, and the impact of our darker history, and Carole Wilkinson extends special thanks and acknowledgement to the Elders who read and edited drafts of the book.

I was reminded of books that I read in early high school like I Am David, and Goodnight Mister Tom. Well-written and intense, Inheritance will probably become a classroom text of note in the future, and I would suggest it for readers of 12 years and up, particularly 12 to 16.

When her father wanders off again, Nic is dumped with her unsociable grandfather at the rural family property of Yaratgil where her mother grew up. There’s no mobile reception, no friends, no conversation, and nothing to do. So Nic starts exploring, and finds a way to travel through time.

The more she travels, the more pieces of a strange puzzle she comes across. Something happened at Yaratgil a long time ago. And even generations later, in Nic’s own time, it seems like someone doesn’t want the truth to come out. Nic forms an uneasy alliance that grows into a friendship of trust with local boy, Thor. As she learns more about her family history, Thor’s search for his own heritage turns out to be another piece of the puzzle.

Wilkinson’s writing is strongly atmospheric, and brought back memories of visits to my grandparents’ farm in rural NSW, complete with the huge zinc bathtub. There is a sense of past and present being irrevocably linked in this landscape, and Wilkinson brings that out in her descriptions of the house, the land and the town that Nic moves through.

There are many layers to this book, and the themes that Wilkinson raises. I found myself going back and re-reading parts of the book to go deeper into certain elements. The title of the book, for example, is significant, and it would make an interesting discussion in the classroom to explore the levels of meaning behind it – what have the characters inherited? What has been passed on through the generations?

Nic comes to Strathmartin with a whole lot of baggage and history that she is unaware of. Why are the locals wary and unfriendly towards her? They don’t even know her. But there is family history, and even though she played no part in that history it isn’t so easy to set aside.

The layers of history, and the impact of the past, is something Inheritance explores with great finesse. As Nic travels backwards to moments in the past, she gathers pieces of both her own history, and that of her family going back many generations, and also a darker time in the local history when the Djargurd balug people lived there and were killed by the white settlers. For Nic, she has to acknowledge the part that her family played in inciting this massacre. For the reader, this is also a dark and unsettling part of the broader history of Australia.

Part of the puzzle, though, lies in Nic’s present day. The history of Strathmartin and Nic’s family property has left its mark, but the choices that some people continue to make drive the mark deeper. Nic and Thor also have choices to make that will, presumably, have an impact on the future. One of the concepts that is reiterated throughout the book is that Nic and the generations of women who time travelled before her may or may not be able to change the past, but they each have the choice and ability to learn from it and make a difference in their present.

There is no magical fix at the end of the book, but Nic and Thor have each, in their own way, travelled in time, and done their part to make things a little better in the future. And there is a reminder that, in the end, it is not for Nic or anyone else to insist on what that future should be for the living members of the Djargurd balug people; that is up to them. Wilkinson gently ties this back to the national conversations about treaty and reconciliation that are happening now.

Another theme that Wilkinson subtly explores is that of the women in Inheritance. Time travel is a significantly female ability, and becomes linked to freedom in many ways. That freedom is curtailed with disastrous results, and the choice to time travel becomes an important one not just for Nic, but for the other women of her family who have this ability.

One of the significant questions that Inheritance asks is the eternal question of why we study history at all? Why dwell on the past? Why read about and examine and return to these horrific events instead of moving on? This is very close to the question of time travel itself – what is the point of all the travelling if you can’t change what’s happened? I think that Carole Wilkinson offers a thoughtful answer to this question, and I hope this book becomes a part of the discussion and recognition that needs to be a part of Australia’s future.

Reviewed by Emily Clarke

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