The Wounded Sinner is the name of a grand, decaying house in Guildford where an irascible old man named Archie lies dying while his son Matthew spends his days driving from Leonora to Perth attempting to care for a father he has no affection for. In his debut novel, Aboriginal writer Gus Henderson tackles the challenges of aging, faith, identity and duty against a backdrop of colonial dispossession and parental neglect. The interactions among Aboriginal and white people in small town WA as well as the sticky issues of racism inherent in white/black/immigrant negotiations in a modern city (in this case, Perth) are written with realism, humour and an absence of judgement. The portraits of Matthew’s wife Jeanie and their children are drawn with a simplicity that encompasses the complexity of the Stolen Generations and their attempts to make peace with diverse inheritances.
About the author
Gus Henderson was born in Sydney in 1950, and had a turbulent upbringing, much of it with his aunt and uncle. He says his schooling was forgettable. He joined the Army in 1967 but did not serve in Vietnam. He was married in 1974 and divorced in 1980. He met his current wife in 1980 and has six children and 17 grandchildren. He completed his PhD in Writing at Edith Cowan University and is currently retired. His people are from around the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. Gus and his siblings grew up without any of his Aboriginal family and it has been a struggle over the years to construct a realistic heritage.
Questions for discussion:
- What is your opinion of the male characters in this novel, especially old Archie, his son Matthew, and his friend Vince? What do you think the author is trying to convey through the portraits of these three modern men trapped in dilemmas of their own making?
- We learn early in the novel that the relationship between Matthew and Jeanie is on the brink of collapse, as Matthew’s feckless ways are grating on Jeanie. How does this set the tone for their interactions throughout the novel?
- Matt’s memories of his grandad bring him more joy than his current duty of care to his father. What do you think the author is saying about the way men relate to each other through the generations?
- Discuss the racism evident in the interactions of old Archie with his son and Vince. Compare this with the racism faced by Jeanie and her children in Leonora.
- An undercurrent of violence runs through the novel. There is the unspoken violence of dispossession and the violence of Ben Poulson, the fix-it man in Leonora. How do these disturbances relate to the action in the novel?
- What are the implications of growing up Aboriginal, young and female in a small town, as seen through the eyes of young Jaylene?
- What are the instances of racism and misogyny in the novel? Are they linked? Jaylene calls her mother a “coconut” (p. 47). Is Jaylene’s identity as a young Wongutha girl reliant on the way her mother behaves?
- Matt drives through towns “lassoed to a more vibrant past” (p. 9) and thinks that Leonora has “no elegance, no refinement” (p. 190). Yet he chooses a dusty outback town where he will always be a stranger to the security of living in his father’s home in suburban Perth. Discuss.
- The burden of history, landscape and age are all themes that are explored without sentimentality in this novel. What other books have you read that are similar?
If you liked this book, you may also like…
- My Place, Sally Morgan, (Fremantle Press)
- Taboo, Kim Scott, (Pan Macmillan)
- Jasper Jones, Craig Silvey, (Allen & Unwin)
- Tracker, Alexis Wright, (Giramondo Publishing)