August Gondiwindi has been washing dishes in miserable grey London for ten years, when the death of her grandfather Albert causes her to journey home to Massacre Plains in Australia. Thus begins the story told by Tara June Winch in The Yield: a book both very beautiful and very sad. Winch is an Australian (Wiradjuri) writer, winner of a number of literary awards; this is her third book, and a bestseller in Australia.
The tale is told in three voices, more or less. There is the story of August: her return and the recollections it brings forth of her childhood at Prosperous House, raised by her grandparents after her parents’ incarceration. It tells of her quest for understanding or coming-to-terms with loss – both that of her grandfather, and of her sister Jedda, whose disappearance as a child has remained a mystery for decades. There is the long letter written by one Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf in 1915, probably the least inviting, but offering historical texture and holding key information. And there is the book project Albert was busy with when he died – a dictionary of Wiradjuri words, by way of which he also tells the story of his own life: of his youth, of meeting the woman he spent his life with, of learning from the ancestors, of caring for the land. It’s this last narrative voice that steals the show, in the intricate and delicate ways it reveals how language creates, and emerges from, ways of living in and making knowledge about the world.
The plot surrounding August gives the story its momentum, with the narrative managing both an enchantingly sedate meandering, as a story told via a dictionary might suggest, and some surprise turnarounds and instances of real suspense. There are also several deeply tragic moments, and the book asks complicated questions about historical complicity, injustice that lives on, and forms of resistance – quite often with a gentle sense of humour. In its loving engagement with land and country, and its speaking to agricultural practices of Indigenous Australians that go back more than 10 000 years, it recalled for me Bruce Pascoe’s excellent Dark Emu – also a must-read. I absolutely loved The Yield, and can recommend it wholeheartedly.
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