Terra Nullius is an exquisite parable about the European invasion of Australia.
Terra Nullius is an exquisite parable about the European invasion of Australia. Book cover image via Hachette.
In the story beings from another planet have invaded and colonised the earth. In their opinion the planet earth was nobody’s land until they arrived – it was terra nullius. These aliens are superior to humans in their technology, at least as it relates to warfare. The humans refer to them as the Toads. The Toads refer to humans as the Natives.
This is the world into which Claire Coleman places her characters. Most of the Natives have been massacred, with many of the remaining survivors used as slaves or servants by the Toad Settlers. The Native children are taken from their parents to be taught in schools by aliens, such as that run by the devout and corrupt Mother Superior, Sister Bagra. Were it not for her cruelty to the children under her care, the reader could almost sympathise with Sister Bagra: ‘There was no escaping the certainty that she did not belong in this place, it was too hot and too dry … there were local plants and animals that the savages seemed to relish, but surely she was not expected to actually eat them.’
The Settlers are under-resourced and ill-served by their bureaucrats. The climate is too hot and too dry for their comfort. They rely heavily on food shipped from their home planet and on slave labour provided by the Natives. Those Natives that run away from their jobs as slaves, or run away from school, are mercilessly hunted by the Toad Troopers. When caught they are severely punished and in some cases executed.
Jacky has run away. ‘He could not risk a fire, he knew the Troopers were still out there, would always be out there … the last beating was more than even he could tolerate.’ So Jacky runs, runs day after day, runs back to a family he does not remember, to a place long-forgotten if ever he knew it. In the course of his long journey, he meets other Natives who are also on the run and encounters a former Trooper who can no longer stomach the needless killing of Natives and has gone native himself, thereby demonstrating that the Toads and Natives could potentially get along with each other, given half a chance.
For not all the Toads are as biased as Sister Bagra. A young Toad nun, for instance, once has the temerity to say of the Natives, ‘They have language. It might be vulgar, it’s horrible really, but they can communicate with each other. They have names. They have at least enough intelligence to learn a little; they must have souls.’
Coleman has laced her narrative with some evocative made-up quotations and extracts of documents from a distant future. These give glimpses of hope for better things to come for the surviving Natives, with indications that the Toads might come to appreciate and respect aspects of the Native culture and even recognise the Natives as equals. Whether this can ever be enough to compensate for their disastrous invasion is another matter. Because the earth was not, after all, terra nullius.
4 1/2 stars out of 5
By Claire G Coleman
Paperback | 9780733638312
Hachette Australia 29 August 2017
First published on
What the stars mean?
- Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
- Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
- Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
- Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
- Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
- Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
- Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
- One star: Awful, to be avoided
- Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level