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David Malouf: Remembering Babylon

In the mid 1840s, Gemmy Fairley, a thirteen year cabin boy on a British ship, is cast ashore and washes up on the shore of Northern Australia. There he joins a band of aborigines, who don’t openly reject him but don’t willingly accept him. Sixteen years later, he hears of some British settlers nearby and goes to them. They mistake him for an aborigine till he speaks to them in English. The family – the McIvors – take him. This novel is about the effect on the McIvors and the small community of Bowen of Gemmy Fairley’s presence.

As we learn later, Gemmy has had a pretty rough life. He had no obvious parents but is brought up by the rat-catcher, Willett, who treats him reasonably well, though knocks him around. One day, Gemmy sets fire to Willett’s hut, for no apparent reason. To Gemmy’s surprise Willett does not wake up (he is drunk). Gemmy escapes, only to be picked up by a press gang and serves for three years on ships, where he is badly treated, before going overboard. The McIvors – from Airdrie in Scotland – have two living children (and two dead ones), both girls, and are also looking after their nephew, Lachlan. Gemmy’s arrival, as is the case with any outsider, disrupts the family and community. Some of the community reject him as still being “black” and still communicating with the aborigines. The community still fears attacks, as they have, after all, stolen the aborigines’ land.

Malouf gives us a rich portrait of the community, with the ambitious schoolmaster, who had hoped for better, the minister who has difficulty with people but loves plants and has Gemmy help him find and name the interesting ones, the slightly outrageous Mrs. Hutchence who has the only proper house and disdains the social niceties of the other ladies and, of course, the McIvor family. Gemmy slowly fits in but is still not quite part of the community and is mistrusted and ill-treated by many. When he is seen by the hand on the neighbouring farm talking to two aborigines, things get worse and the McIvors suffer various incidents, culminating in the throat slashing of their geese. Gemmy and his aboriginal friends are blamed. While we do not know who the culprit is, we are led to believe that it is the hand on the neighbouring farm.

Gemmy moves in with Mrs. Hutchence and the novel peters out, except for an odd afterword, which has the eldest McIvor girl as a nun, the nephew as a Government minister and Gemmy having disappeared, presumably to rejoin the aborigines. Nevertheless, Malouf’s telling of prejudice against what is different is as superb as it is understated. He lets the fact speak for themselves while giving us a glimpse of Gemmy’s mind and how he, as the outsider, feels. One of Malouf’s finest works.

Publishing history

First published 1993 by Chatto & Windus/Random House Australia