'Storyland' by Catherine McKinnon

by Sandy Fussell

Set in the Illawarra, Storyland sweeps across a much wider landscape of time and place. At the heart of this book is the narrative that shaped our country, and continues to do so.

Five stories are told with different voices. Each story is threaded through to the next on the wings of native birds. The pelicans flap, the boo-book owl calls, the white-bellied sea eagle dives and the whip birds are heard and not seen.

1796. Cabin-boy Will Martin is on a journey with Bass and Flinders, searching for a river. It’s the story of early contact with the people they call Indians and the inevitable miscommunication and misrepresentation.

1822. Lifer convict Hawker is caretaking Captain Brook’s sheep and defending the corn from a local tribe. He covets a transfer to Appin, where life is less harsh. Hawker will do whatever it takes to get what he wants.

1900. Lola runs a successful dairy property with her half-sister Mary and young half-brother Abe. Their farmer neighbour, whose daughter works with them making butter, is begrudgingly tolerant. You two girls got your ways, but your ways can’t be our ways. You can’t help it. I know you can’t help it. When his daughter disappears, the accusations and violence begin.

1998.  Young Bel makes friends with two boys from India. Their rafting adventures on the river lead them to Kristie. Kristie and her partner sell indigenous art, using Kristie’s ancestry to create background stories. If Bel can’t keep a secret, Kristie is in danger.

The last storyteller is Nada. 2033 and 2717 roll together. Science has advanced but a climate catastrophe has badly damaged the land. In this future, Nada’s DNA is rescued. She is a living book in the Storyland project, her stories mined and recorded. She remembers the morning when the birds were silent.

People and place echo through the five stories, weaving a complex net of cultural identity. The prose is rich with references to Australian flora, birds and animals. Language responds to the storyteller’s voice. Bel speaks with the innocence of a young person but has a love of sophisticated words. Hawker’s voice is coarse and aggressive, but fearful of the dark days.

Sometimes the prose is sinister and threatening. “The howls of dark nature in my head; my imaginings, bloody and boned.” At other times, poetic with imagery such as “the sea never stops its caress of the earth” or the simple but evocative “the night is all stars”.

The passage of time in Storyland flows in both directions. After Nada’s memories are recorded, the narrative winds backwards through history and Bel, Lola, Hawker and Will complete their stories.

Before Will leaves the Illawarra to return to Sydney Cove, he marvels at what he sees. "This land is a forever land. Here the clock ticks to a different time."

Yes, it is and yes, it does.  Storyland captures exactly that.


Sandy Fussell works in the office at the South Coast Writers Centre and offered to review Storyland because the cover looked inviting. She never expected to find a story that will stay with her forever.

Written by SCWC

Posted on May 23, 2017