Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland gives readers something that many novels don’t: a glimpse at the enormity of time, and the vast capacity for change across centuries of social and environmental disruption. It's a novel that has skyrocketed its way to the top of my 2017 favourites list, and is one that I will no doubt re-read in the near future. For it deserves re-reading – there is so much to miss on the first read, but one is invited into the story with such ease that I found it difficult to slow my pace.
Spanning hundreds of years, Storyland is a novel of time and environmental change. Set on the banks of Lake Illawarra in New South Wales under the eternal shadow of an immense and ancient fig tree, each chapter, or short story almost, explores the lives of a variety of characters and how each plays out in the presence of these surroundings. Some chapters depict epic adventure, others extreme violence, and one an innocent understanding of the world from the perspective of a child.
The ability of McKinnon to portray deep and relatable character development is a major highlight of this book. From Will Martin, the cabin boy accompanying George Bass and Matthew Flinders upon the Tom Thumb sailing boat in 1796, to Nada, the bodiless mind of a woman from 2033 being interrogated by future authorities for the Storyland project in 2717– there is a wide breadth of characters, each of whom interacts with the surrounding natural world in diverse ways. Despite the dystopian twist of the novel, the events of Storyland never appear far-fetched. In fact, they are savagely real. McKinnon's writing reveals bit by bit the diverse realities of each character, none of which seem too unbelievable, despite the often unusual circumstances.
Although the book skips over many years from chapter to chapter, the rate of environmental change due to human overdevelopment and climate change is still frightening. An incredibly short period of time in the wider scheme of things, a lapse of 100 years sees European settlers move in and violently take advantage of the local Indigenous peoples, with one ex-convict resorting to an act of extreme violence. Later, the gruesome murder of a teenager in 1900, her body shockingly discovered in the local creek. Then, the lively adventures of three young children on Lake Illawara in 1998, told through the honest and naive perspective of Bel. And finally, the chaos of a civilisation on the verge of breakdown, as rising sea waters decimate the homes of those living near the coast.
The novel’s structure of multiple stories taking place generations apart is definitely not a new concept. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas springs to mind, and the similarities between that epic cross-country, cross-century novel and McKinnon’s work are obvious. However, McKinnon makes the format her own in Storyland and it’s refreshing to read such a novel written in an Australian context, with strong environmental themes. I was not surprised to learn of McKinnon's background as a playwright, as each chapter of the novel seems to function as a different 'act', with haunting scenery and reflective monologues throughout.
Storyland vividly portrays the relationships between Indigenous Australians, European Australians, and the landscapes that they inhabit. The title itself implies the importance of promoting the stories of Australian landscapes and people – how do we connect to the land, why should we care about it, and how does it change around us and, in many cases, because of us? McKinnon seems to consistently implore the reader to connect with the natural world and their fellow human: a suggestion that who we are is so strongly linked to where we come from and where we grow up. The intense storylines throughout the novel are more than just great fiction – they are raw, real and confronting in their exploration of humankind's inescapable connection to the natural landscapes we call home.
The richness of the characters and the thrill of finding that their story isn’t over when their initial chapters end (for fans of Cloud Atlas, you’ll know what I mean) make Storyland an unusual, vibrant Australian novel that I believe deserves much more praise, from both critics and readers. If you want, or need, a push in the right direction when it comes to appreciating just how dire the effects of climate change could be, or you simply want to comprehend the often inexplicable sublimity of Australia’s natural landscapes, then this novel is a must-read. It is a piece of fiction that has made me realise just how much of Australia I have left to see. There are so many lives being lived, and that have been lived, across so many different landscapes, giving each area its own unique history within a longer history of Indigenous habitation, and an even longer history still of evolutionary and geological time. It gives me hope that as Australians, we can learn from the past, prepare for the future, and set aside time to reach out to nature in the process.
Rachel is an Arts and Science graduate and a freelance writer who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She has completed an Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.
You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.