Plucking at our World: David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon

 Remembering Babylon is a wonderful book. Malouf’s rich prose, which at times approaches poetry, creates a believable and fascinating lead character in Gemmy, a white man who was raised from boyhood by aborigines who found him nearly drowned after being thrown overboard on an Australian bound English ship. Gemmy’s pain, as he grapples for belonging in the white settler community where his presence is discomforting, is as familiar and personal as a remembered dream. 

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Remembering Babylon
by David Malouf
Vintage, 1994
ISBN: 0 09 930242X

I found The Conversations at Curlow Creek a little dull, so I wasn’t expecting that much from Remembering Babylon, which preceded Conversations. I was wrong. Remembering Babylon is a wonderful book. Malouf’s rich prose, which at times approaches poetry, creates a believable and fascinating lead character in Gemmy, a white man who was raised from boyhood by aborigines who found him nearly drowned after being thrown overboard on an Australian bound English ship. Gemmy’s pain, as he grapples for belonging in the white settler community where his presence is discomforting, is as familiar and personal as a remembered dream. His struggle for meaning, and the struggle of those around him as he releases in them long forgotten fears and hidden insecurities is very moving.

This is a novel which raises big questions, about what it means to be human, about compassion and fear, about language and feeling. The people who are touched by Gemmy; Lachlan, Janet, their father Jock, George Abbott the schoolteacher, Mr Frazer, who tries to help Gemmy, and the myriad of closed-minded settlers who are in turn fascinated and repulsed by Gemmy, all create a stunning mosaic of Australia in the 1840s and of modern vs tribal man, man vs environment, and above all man vs himself. While forcing the reader to faced with his own insecurities, his own fear of otherness and of not belonging, Malouf startles us with such beautiful passages as the last one: “It glows in fullness till the tide is high and the light almost, but not quite, unbearable, as the moon plucks at our world and all the waters of the earth ache towards it, and the light, running in fast now, reaches the edges of the shore, just so far in its order, and all the muddy margin of the bay is alive, and in a line of running fire all the outline of the vast continent appears, in touch now with its other life.” Remembering Babylon is a beautiful, spiritual, epic story which, while addressing all the big issues of life, remains short, easy to read and full of realistic, characters the reader can identify with. A highly recommended book.

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