More meditation than murder: Sorry by Gail Jones

sorry-jones2Sorry is an unsatisfying book.

After seeing Kevin Rennie’s glowing review earlier this year, I had expectations. I loved Jones’ Dreams of Speaking, the first book I finished for 2012. I’ve heard great things about Five Bells. Sixty Lights has been working its way up my “to be read” pile. Then I was caught at my mum’s house last week without a book to read and saw Sorry on her bookshelf. I’d picked it up at a Lifeline fair and passed it on to her months ago. It seemed the perfect bookend for the year.

Yet I found myself struggling to concentrate and – I admit it – counting the pages to the chapter end.

It’s not the density of the language, though Rennie is right to point out that the book is peppered with old-fashioned phrases. I love Jones’ prose. I relish in her love of words, her passion for books and Shakespeare. The problem was the structure.

If I’d kept in mind as I read that it is “a bit of a murder mystery”, as Rennie calls it, I might’ve been more engaged. But I found little of the sense of urgency or curiosity I associate with that genre. Jones invites her readers into her tale with a graphic, disturbing opening only to abandon them, to let the narrative drift. It drifts across the Northern Territory in the war years of the early 1940s, across the lives of a displaced English couple and their run-wild child, the slow disappointments and cruelty of the anthropologist father and disintegration of his Shakespeare-obsessed wife, the child’s friendships with a succession of Aboriginal companions and a deaf-mute son of a neighbour. The novel gathers momentum with the Japanese bombing of Broome and comes to a denouement with the revelations of the truth behind the novel’s opening.

It is a good – perhaps even great – book. A book, Rennie says, that every Australian should read. But I was left… unsatisfied. The book is “about” things, important and interesting issues. It’s a meditation on language, reading and communication, on intimacy, race relations, prejudice, failure and forgiveness. With such noble themes, it should have moved me more. But what it’s not is the kind of tale I really like, a book that makes me feel intensely, that sweeps me away on a flood of emotion, as well as thought and imagination, and leaves me stranded and exhausted – and changed – at the end.

Dreams of Speaking by Gail Jones

Dreams of SpeakingDreams of Speaking by Gail Jones

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book that, for me, started slowly and gained momentum as I read. To be honest, I only picked it because it had a “J” in the title. I’m combining the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading & Reviewing Challenge with the Aussie Readers “Challenge with a Twist” on GoodReads: each month you have to read a book whose title or author starts with the same letter as that month. “Jones” = “January”. I’d initially chosen Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice for January, only to find it’s a collection of short stories. (Lanagan’s first prize-winning story, “Singing the Sister Down” is outstanding, by the way.)

Initially I had my doubts. Any book that has a writer as the central character makes me wary. I’ve spent too many hours of my life reading “literary” books that seem far removed from life, but I persisted with Dreams of Speaking and was well rewarded. By the end, I was in love with Jones’ characters, their different ways of seeing the world and the author’s language.

An aspect I particularly loved was Jones’ way of interspersing the narrative with “facts”. I write “facts” in inverted commas because these sections purport to be facts, but come via one of the book’s key characters, Mr Sakamoto, retired Japanese gentleman traveller with a passion for Alexander Graham Bell, who befriends the main character, Alice, the young Australian writer from Perth whom he meets after she has taken up a literary scholarship to live in a studio in Paris.

From a narrative point of view, these interspersed sections of “fact” do a number of things. They provide evidence of the basis of this unlikely friendship, a shared fascination with invention and technology. The “fact” sections also a counterpoint with the shocking drama that underlies these characters’ lonely obsessions: the trauma Mr Sakamoto has suffered in surviving the atomic bomb blast of Nagasaki, and the fractured relationship Alice has with her sister Nora, and her former lover Stephen. Gradually, the reader has the impression that these characters’ fascination with human invention is both a retreat from a painful world, and a way of reaching out tentatively to others. This dance between distance and connection, intimacy and isolation creates a powerful tension throughout the book and leads to an ending which, for me, was one of the most moving I’ve read in years.

Who would like this book? People who love language, who love the idea of Australians as global people, equally at home – or at a loss – in Perth, Paris or Japan. Also anyone whose interested in Japanese character and culture, especially the post-nineteenth-century influence of the Meiji restoration with its love of European elegance and sophistication, as well as its embrace of modern technologies. People who are interested in the traumatic aftermath of WWII will find aspect of the book interesting, too – but this subject is treated in an oblique way, which, for me, has a lot more emotional power than something direct.

They say that if a book and its characters are memorable, it’s the sign of a good book: the story and characters remain vivid in the imagination long after you put the book down. This was certainly the case for me with Charlotte Wood’s The Children and Heather Rose’s The Butterfly Man among the books I read in 2011. It’s too soon after reading to judge whether Dreams of Speaking will have this quality for me. But I can say this: when I got to the end, I felt at war with the author: not because I felt the story failed, but because I cared so strongly about her characters and their fate. I didn’t like the ending Jones chose, but I respected it: it seemed true to the characters and the messiness of life generally. Instead of being a diversion and an escape like so many of the page-turning books I’ve read in recent years, this story made me feel as if it had added hours to my life, expanding my heart and my mind in unexpected ways.

I’ll certainly read more by this author.

After first posting this review in GoodReads, I discovered that Dreams of Speaking was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2007, as well as the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and longlisted for the Orange Prize.

Creative Commons Licence
Review of Dreams of Speaking by Gail Jones by Elizabeth Lhuede is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

  • Goodreads

  • Country Secrets – anthology

  • Snowy River Man – rural romance

  • By Her Side – romantic suspense

%d bloggers like this: