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"Paris Savages" Review: how do we write about uncomfortable history?

Book cover of Paris Savages by Katherine Johnson
Signed by the author, first page of Paris Savages

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I picked up a copy of Paris Savages when I was in Hobart, Tasmania this February. Thinking about how easy it was to fly there and how care-free we were is a stark contrast to today’s world. I hope that in these uncertain times, my book blog can bring you some respite from the world, along with a few good book suggestions to help keep reality away.

Some beautiful Australian flora that I found in Tasmania.

The first thing that drew me Katherine Johnson’s novel was the cover. I know, I know… judging a book by it’s cover. But I couldn’t help it. The title also intrigued me. As a long time student and scholar of modern history, I had studied human zoos in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was intrigued to see what this book might have to say about them.

Johnson’s novel was a slow read for me, and I have struggled with trying to figure out how to approach this review. I didn’t like the book, and I didn’t not like the book. I have been trying to figure out what exactly it was about it all that made it a hard and uncomfortable read.

The subject matter is confronting, yet I feel like it didn’t give me anything new. The portrayal of Whiteness was shaped through a white-saviours lens. There were racist scientists and the Müller family who thought of themselves as true helpers of the indigenous cause were probably the most despicable of all the characters in the novel.

Chapters are split up between the narration of events seen through Hilda, and from a ghost-like figure who I assumed was Hilda Müller’s mother. Although, the ambiguity of this figure is never really resolved. The use of this unknown narrator provides not only an outside view of the situation, and this incorporeal narrator provides an element of magic realism in the novel. However, I felt this fantastical narrator falls short in its ability to convey new insights for the story.

Whilst reading this novel I wondered why this story was being told. And why now? What was at stake? How were the indigenous characters being treated and represented? How can we talk about these horrific histories without over-simplifying indigenous experiences? To be honest, I felt left with more questions than answers after reading this book. I don’t think that non-indigenous people should not be allowed to participate in telling historical (and fictional) stories about our shared past, however, I do feel uneasy about it.

One of my main concerns is about reducing indigenous experiences to only heartbreak and sorrow. Aboriginality in Australia is vast and varied. There is so much more to indigenous experiences beyond just getting churned up in White history. Even though Johnson said that she wanted to tell the narrative from the perspective of Hilda, a German immigrant in Australia, as a way to possibly ‘avoid’ speaking for indigenous people, it also means that white people are centred again in indigenous stories. And what does this mean for aboriginal history and stories?

I don’t know what the balance could look like. There is no easy way to think about the colonial past and how it impacts our future. I still don’t know how to feel about ‘Paris Savages’. It will probably be pin-balling around in my head for many days to come. What do you think? As always, share the reading love.

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