Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
With Sanctuary Judy Nunn has written an Australian novel which clearly highlights important issues of the time. Set in her home State of Western Australia this novel reveals the human side of the illegal immigrant issue. A motley group of nine people had been set adrift after a storm had smashed their fragile boat with the loss of many lives. Those who had survived had believed it to be only a postponement of the inevitable when to their surprise they found themselves near a small island containing dwellings. Unable to find any life on the island they thankfully settled into the accommodation and set about regaining their strength after the gruelling times they had experienced before.
A lone fisherman arrived at the island and seeing the plight of these people decided to conceal their presence from the authorities. Each of the nine had run away from horrors in their earlier life and although from different backgrounds and cultures soon bonded as a group. Between them there was enough overlap of language for them all to be able to communicate.
One young woman among them was a mystery to them all as she did not speak and her eyes had lost all spark of life. It was not until the fisherman’s grandson journeyed to the island with him that she began to show interest in anything. His determination to allow her to experience some freedom in her life would lead to those on the island being discovered and their short time of making decisions for themselves would come to an end.
Sanctuary is a story about the human spirit and the drive to survive under horrendous circumstances. It is also about those who put themselves at risk to help them. It’s also a tale about love and compassion. It is not a romantic novel, nevertheless it is a story about love.
It is also a story about stereotyping and a fear of the unknown. ‘Reffos, I’ll bet! Bloody reffos have landed on the island! Illegals! Probably shacked up there!’ (354). ‘So the government’s scared because they’re Middle Eastern Muslims! Are these people militants then? They could be bloody terrorists!’ (373).
Several years ago Judy Nunn and her husband Bruce Venables visited the Houtman Abrolhos, a chain of islands off the coast of Geraldton, Western Australia, while attending a local writers’ festival. The desolation of the islands was the perfect inspiration for her 14th novel, Sanctuary: What if people in search of sanctuary landed on this remote island, with no idea where they might be, only to discover that, despite the starkness of the place, it provided everything necessary for their survival?
Former actress and screenwriter, Nunn was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in the 2015 Australia Day Honours for her service to the performing arts as a scriptwriter and actor of stage and screen, and to literature as an author.
Embarking on adult fiction in the early 1990s, Judy’s three novels, The Glitter Game, Centre Stage and Araluen, set respectively in the worlds of television, theatre and film, became bestsellers. A specialist in Australian period fiction, other books she has written include Kal, Beneath the Southern Cross, Territory, Pacific, Heritage, Floodtide, Maralinga, Tiger Men in 2011, Elianne in 2013 and Spirits of the Ghan in 2015.
She has developed a love of writing Australian historically-based fiction and her fame as a novelist has spread rapidly throughout Europe where she is published in English, German, French, Dutch, Czech and Spanish.
Nunn’s novels reveal a love for detail in her research and her thorough descriptions leave the reader with a feeling that they know the place intimately. Her knowledge of the Australian landscape shows through in her writing and she has the ability to make her characters just like the people next door. She segues beautifully between the present and the past. Although Shoalhaven and Gevaar Island are fictional places they are typical of the fishing ports and islands in that part of Australia.
This is not her first book about immigrants seeking refuge from the horrors of war. In Sanctuary she addresses the new wave of people being displaced or fleeing not just from war but from persecution based on belief or culture. Her compassion for the people who seek sanctuary is clearly evident in this novel. Like all her novels Sanctuary is a thought provoking read and addresses the human emotions of not just those seeking sanctuary but also those who may feel threatened.
By Judy Nunn
Penguin Random House