Review: Terra Nullius

Recently, I read Terra Nullius, by Claire Coleman. I’d heard Coleman speak at a couple of conferences since the novel was released, and it’s quite critically acclaimed. Coleman was awarded the 2016 Black&Write! Fellowship, and the novel itself was short-listed or commended in a range of awards, including the Stella, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and the Aurealis Awards.
It seemed to be making waves in both the Literary and the Spec-Fic circles, and Coleman is an engaging and passionate speaker, so I was keen to check it out for myself.
(This review also appears on my Goodreads)

Terra Nullius Novel

Coleman’s debut novel hinges on a reveal (which I won’t spoil here) which occurs approximately 10 chapters in, and somehow when it comes it feels too late in the piece. Perhaps because I had picked it earlier and had been reading for some chapters with the revelation already assumed, or perhaps because the novel improves a lot after the reveal, so that the opening chapters felt longer than those that followed.

Her language and rhythm took some getting used to, and I bounced of it pretty hard early, but once I developed an understanding of it a little better I quite enjoyed the prose. In its best moments it had a kind of lyricism and a unique voice, though this was a little inconsistent, perhaps to be expected from a writer still honing those skills.

The several POV characters challenge the reader early, as we head-hop between very different (and initially quite disconnected) perspectives in our introduction to the setting and circumstances of the novel. Initially the descriptions are quite minimal, sometimes vague, other times stark, but there’s a reason for why this is the case in the early chapters because those descriptive gaps allow for the revelation which is to come.

Of those various perspectives provided, Jacky in particular (the first, and perhaps the most protagonist character of them all) gave the reader someone to connect with and to barrack for. It’s his plight which I think carried me through some of the other chapters, and the desire to know his fate which kept me in the story.

Not without its flaws (I did struggle with the pacing at various stages), but overall the novel is of interest for its craft, its narrative, and the underlying social commentary.

(a vague possible spoilery stuff below…)

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I think perhaps that reading this in the context of a work of genre fiction contributed to that. I was expecting SFF elements, and so attuned to what they may be. If I had approached this without that context, or read it from the start as a mainstream literary novel I imagine I might have been surprised by the reveal, and I hope that other readers got to experience that moment of discovery.


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