Book Reviews

#AusReadingMonth23: Remembering Babylon by David Malouf — pricking the bubble of superiority

Cover of Remembering Babylon, an extraordinarily powerful novel by David Malouf about racism in early Australia.

Remembering Babylon is an extraordinary, unforgettable novel that raises challenging questions about identity and attitudes to people from other cultures.

David Malouf’s tale is set within a group of early European settlers in Australia in the mid 1840s. Thirteen year old Gemmy Fairley is a white English boy rescued by indigenous people when he was cast ashore from the ship where he worked as a cabin boy. For sixteen years, he lived among a group of First Nations people, adopting their way of life and their language.

Though memories fade of his previous life in England, some part of him longs for a world he cannot quite remember. So when he hears that some white people have settled along the coast, he sets out to find them.

His re-entry to a European way of life does not begin well. He’s taken captive by three children from a settler’s family who believe the strange, dark skinned man they discover near their compound, is one of the tribesmen who live in the wilderness.

Gemmy awakens the curiosity of the settlement; they don’t know what to make of this “pathetic, muddy-eyed, misshapen fellow” whose utterances make no sense to them. Over time, as his story is pieced together, he becomes a source of tension. His origins make Gemmy one of “us” yet his close connections with the “savages” make him one of “them”.

Remembering Babylon is a fascinating exploration of the complexities of identity. While the settlers struggle to understand and accept him, Gemmy himself wrestles with questions about who he is and where he belongs.

He walked swiftly now over the charred earth and was himself crumbling. If he did not find the word soon that would let him enter here, there would be nothing left of him but a ghost of heat, a whiff as he passed of fallen ash.

The white settlers are largely ignorant about the people who have lived in the territory for hundreds of years. They know nothing about how the indigenous people live or their relationship with the land yet they hold fast to the view these people are their natural inferiors and savages. The first time Gemmy appears in their midst, the settlers are not even sure they are seeing a human.

… The stick-like legs all knobbed at the joints, suggested a wounded waterbird, a brolga or a human that in the manner of the tales they told one another, all spells and curses, had been changed into a bird, but only half way and now, neither one thing nor the other was hopping and flapping towards them out of the world over there, …the abode of everything savage and fearsome.

What the book disproves however is any notion that the white settlers are superior, more peaceful and civilized than the “blacks” who live in the swamps and marshes beyond the settlement. The settlers people prove themselves capable of extreme vicious racism and savagery when they believe the life they had toiled to carve from dust and earth is under threat.

Few of them have any doubt that this land belongs to them and must be protected at all costs. Rarer still are those, like Ellen McIver whose family provides shelter for Gemmy, who acknowledge that there were people on this land long before they arrived:

She had not understood, ‘til she came to a place where it was lacking, the extent to which her sense of the world had to do with the presence of those who had been there before, leaving signs of their passing and spaces still warm with breath – a threshold worn with the coming and going of feet, hedges between fields that went back a thousand years…

Remembering Babylon is a thought-provoking novel delivered in a richly symbolic and evocative style. Malouf skips between perspectives on the same events, challenging his readers to look beneath the surface of what is said in order to arrive at the truth. This is the kind of novel that you finish and then want to immediately begin again to discover what you missed the first time.

Remembering Babylon, David Malouf’s fifth novel was published in 1993. It won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award and shortlisted for the Booker Prize.was short-listed for the Booker Prize. 

This post is in support of Australia Reading Month, hosted by Brona’sBooks.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

24 thoughts on “#AusReadingMonth23: Remembering Babylon by David Malouf — pricking the bubble of superiority

  • I’ve only read a couple of Malouf’s books to date – thought-provoking is his thing! I’d be very curious to see for myself how he deals with this topic. I read quite a bit of First Nations literature as a matter of course these days, and I think it was writers like Malouf who helped white readers like me ‘get there’. Also First Nations writing and publishing has increased in leaps and bounds since then – I’m reading two Indigenous authors at the moment and hope to review them soon for AusReading Month.

    • I can see how he would be an entry to First Nations writing

  • This sounds very interesting, and a good attempt to show some things up, though I note Bill’s comment above. Looks like it was written a while ago when perhaps this was one of the only ways to get the Aboriginal people’s perspective across at all.

    • Maybe Liz, I know so little about Australian fiction and even less about indigenous writing

  • It’s funny, David Malouf is one of the few Australian writers I’ve never been tempted by – I’m not even sure why! It sounds like I might need to overcome that prejudice though…?

    • Since I’ve read only this one book by him I can’t really judge Sheree. The comments from Lisa and Kim who know a lot more about Australian authors than I do, do suggest he is well worth reading though

  • I’ve never read him so can’t comment. Enjoyed the various other comments here.😍

    • I do enjoy it when people have different views – makes for more lively discussion.

  • Great review, Karen. This one’s an old favourite of mine. Malouf’s use of language is so vivid right from the opening paragraph.

    • The opening scenes which portray the first encounter are incredibly memorable

  • This book has been vaguely on my radar for a long time. Since it appears not to be in our library (shame!) I’ve just ordered a copy at last.

    • There are so many novels by Australian authors that sound really interesting but we never get to hear about them in the UK. They are rather expensive which I think may be why libraries don’t stock them

      • It’s a pity, because there is a fine list of books worth reading.

        • Absolutely true. Ive tried buying them second hand but even then they are really costly

  • Malouf is a writer I find difficult to like. I read Remembering Babylon some years ago and though I agree his heart is in the right place, I think the words and attitudes he ascribes to his Aboriginal characters encroaches on their opportunity to speak for themselves.

    • I know you are not comfortable with people writing about cultures/places/experiences that are not their own Bill. I respect your opinion though it’s not one I share sorry.

  • What a wonderful choice for #AusReadingMonth. Malouf is one of our finest writers.
    I read this back in 1997, when I first started keeping a reading journal, and I am strongly tempted to do a ‘Reviews from the Archive’ post just so that I can link my feeble review to yours!

  • I read this when it first came out and suspect I was too young to properly appreciate. Your review makes me want to go back to reread it. In the years since I have loved everything I have ever read by him.

    • I think I read somewhere that he has stopped writing novels now – is that true Kim or did I just make that up?

      • I haven’t seen anything new from Malouf for quite some time, only compilations of his essays and other non-fiction writing and poems.
        I’m not sure if there was an official retirement announced like Murnane, but Malouf did write about the “fading of the intensity of the imagination” that happens with older writers. He will turn 90 next year.

        • It’s a similar story with Edna O’Brien . She’s 92 and hasn’t published anything since 2019. The only other indication we have that we have likely seen the last of her work is that she has announced her archive of papers is being donated to the National Library of Ireland

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