Beauty, subtlety and depth invite second read

Australian author Catherine McKinnon's second novel, Storyland, creates a compelling narrative reminiscent of the Aboriginal songlines echoed in its title.

Catherine McKinnon
4th Estate/HarperCollins



Advance publicity has compared Australian author Catherine McKinnon's second novel, Storyland, to David Mitchell's genre-bending Cloud Atlas. This is both appropriate and misleading.

Although both feature interconnected stories stretching from the Southern Seas at the end of the 18th century to an unrecognisable post-human future and back again, Storylines is as focused on the relationship between people and the land as that between human characters, creating a distinctive and compelling narrative reminiscent of the Aboriginal songlines echoed in its title.

The novel opens in 1796 with the experiences of a young British cabin boy, Will Martin, as he embarks on a 10-day voyage south from Port Jackson to Lake Illawarra in search of a navigable inland river. From here the stories progress through the centuries, picked up by Hawker, a convict guarding cornfields on the shore in 1822; Lola, who runs a dairy farm with her half-siblings on the same site in 1900, and the precocious teenage Bel, who spends the summer and autumn of 1998 rafting on the lake with her friends.

The narrative culminates with a woman called Nada, whose memories of the violence and social collapse following a catastrophic cyclone in 2033 are being recorded by an unidentified individual in 2717, then moves back through the timelines to the starting point, completing the cycle.

The movement from one storyteller to the next is heralded by the echoed movement or voice of a bird, and all are connected by both their physical location and shared objects and relationships: an ancient fig tree, an Aboriginal axe, the ties of blood, history and memory.

Despite being distinctively and unapologetically the story of Australia, Storyland has a universality that is instantly identifiable and totally captivating. Many of the stories are grounded in real and/or plausible events and McKinnon also does a wonderful job creating a distinctive voice for each of her narrators, from Will's remarkably erudite language (a legacy of his childhood in a theatrical family) to the teenage Bel's breathless, stream-of-consciousness outpouring, a feat that Mitchell does not always manage.

There is so much more to say about this novel, including its exploration of the complexity of Aboriginal/settler relationships, than there is space to cover here, and much more to discover than is possible in a single reading. Suffice it to say that this is a book I will return to multiple times, both for its beauty and subtlety and for the sheer pleasure of experiencing the world it reflects.

Cushla McKinney is a Dunedin scientist.


Win a copy

The ODT has four copies of Storyland, by Catherine McKinnon, to give away courtesy of Fourth Estate/HarperCollins. For your chance to win a copy, email with your name and postal address in the body of the email, and ‘‘Storyland’’ in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, May 16.

Winners of last week’s giveaway, Capturing Light: Roy Miller — New Zealand Stained Glass Artist, by Brian Miller, courtesy of Lifelogs Publishing, were: Arthur Bingham, of Macandrew Bay, Noel Matthews, of Mosgiel, Bernadine Shannon, of Palmerston.

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