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Compassion

Compassion

Author: Julie Janson

Publisher: Magabala Books

Published: March 2024

“I was alive in the face of my anger at the dozens of tribes lost forever, our language and song,” declares Duringah, the protagonist of Julie Janson’s latest novel, Compassion.

Often confronting yet utterly compelling, Compassion draws readers into the life of Duringah (also known as Nell Jones), an Aboriginal woman growing up in colonial New South Wales during the 1840s and 1850s.

The reader first meets Duringah as a young child who has been separated from her mother and is under the guardianship of a violent farmer. Desperate to escape him and find her family, she flees, but is soon captured and imprisoned in the notorious Paramatta Female factory. Refusing to acquiesce to the powers that would have her remain an indentured servant, she plans a further break for freedom.

Although Compassion is a work of historical fiction, much of Janson’s inspiration arises from the stories of her own ancestors, in particular her great great grandmother, Mary Thomas, who was tried for stealing livestock in the mid-nineteenth century, but always managed to talk her way out of punishment, which Janson attributes to her “gift of the gab”.

Janson does not shy away from confronting the devastating decimation of the Aboriginal nations on the Hawksbury and Hunter rivers by the NSW Agricultural Company. Yet in doing so, she resists easy stereotypes and caricatures, instead creating complex, colourful characters, both Koori and non-Aboriginal. Compassion is a story of trauma and violence, grief and loss. But it is also one of resilience and resistance, revenge, adventure – and horse thieving.

Compassion is a sequel to Janson’s earlier novel, Benevolence, which tells the story of Duringah’s mother, Muraging (Mary James). While it is not necessary to read the books in sequential order, Compassion references characters who appear in Janson’s earlier work, and one does enrich the other.

With so much of existing Australian history told through a colonial lens, Compassion (and Benevolence) offers a rich and evocative counter narrative from an Aboriginal perspective. A gripping yarn that is also essential reading.

 

 

Reviewed by Melinda Tognini

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