Reviewed by Rod McLary
This new novel by Aboriginal writer and academic from the Kokomini of northern Queensland Graham Akhurst is a genre-bending tour-de-force which is certain to fully engage the demographic [older teenagers] for whom it is written and many others as well.
The central protagonist is Jonathan Lane [usually called Jono] who is a ‘Great Change’ scholar at St Lucia Private – a fictitious school but based in Brisbane – and he has just received his high school certificate. The school makes no secret of its aim ‘to provide a top-notch private school education for the less fortunate in our society’ and Jono and his best friend Jenny are considered to be ‘less fortunate’. As Jenny says to Jono sotto voce ‘we only have to play dancing possum for a little bit longer’ . Subjected to overt racism from his fellow students, Jono is only too pleased to move on from school – but to what? A couple of months later, he and Jenny are accepted into the Aboriginal Performing Arts Centre [APAC] and his life changes completely.
Written in the first-person with Jono’s seventeen-year-old voice, Borderland is an engaging and sometimes thrilling, confronting, and exciting journey taken by Jono as he grows into adulthood and his acceptance of his Indigenous self-identity.
Jono is selected as the key presenter in a documentary about a gas mining venture located at Gambari – a small rural township in the far west. There he is haunted by omens of death, suffocating panic attacks and visions of Wudun – a malevolent spirit from the Dreaming. Out at Gambari, Jono meets Norman an Aboriginal ringer on a local property who becomes Jono’s spiritual guide as together they confront Wudun. At first terrified by his visions of Wudun with its ‘Long teeth, pale skin. Long claws and black eyes’, with the support of Norman, he is able to confront and vanquish the spirit.
Borderland is the tale of a young Aboriginal teenager bullied by some of his fellow students, assaulted by Aboriginal men when walking home one afternoon, and seeking his rightful place in the world. Jono is confronted by frightening situations related to Dreamtime, and through embracing his culture and his country, he is able to transition to a confident young man ready for his future.
Although the novel set within the coming-of-age genre, there are added elements of gothic horror – defined as a genre which deals with ‘the battle between humanity and unnatural forces of evil within an oppressive, inescapable and bleak landscape’. Borderland captures this in spades. The author has brilliantly and viscerally described the desolation of the landscape, the harsh dry heat, and the unforgiving wind – a landscape in which no one can feel at home.
But even more, the key protagonist Jono is an engaging and sensitive young man struggling with issues of identity. His love for his mother shines through and it is from her that in the earlier stages of the narrative he draws comfort and strength. His growth towards a clearer and stronger sense of self and his accessing a strength within him so far unknown is beautifully realised. The reader is compelled to urge him on every step of the way.
A wonderful book especially for the teenage readers but equally for those readers who enjoy authentic writing.
The author Graham Akhurst is currently a lecturer of Indigenous Australian Studies and Creative Writing at the University of Technology in Sydney. He was named the first Indigenous recipient of the Fulbright W G Walker Award as the highest-ranked postgraduate Australian applicant. Borderland is his first novel.
by Graham Akhurst
ISBN 978 1 76080 264 6