Book Bag: ‘Taboo’ by Kim Scott; ‘The Bees of the Invisible’ by Wally Swist

Published: 9/5/2019 5:01:37 PM

By Steve Pfarrer


By Kim Scott

Small Beer Press

In western Australia, a tractor trailer hauling wheat loses its brakes as it comes down a long hill, hurtles through the center of the dusty town of Kepalup, then topples over into a bed of sand. Three figures emerge from the vehicle: a young woman, an older man and a … ghost? A skeleton? A human-like figure made of wheat? Or of wood and grass?

The beginning of “Taboo,” an award-winning novel by Australian writer Kim Scott, sets the tone for a story that offers a mix of magic, history, violence and reconciliation — elements that make up the larger story of the clash between Australia’s Aboriginal people and the white settlers who killed them and pushed them aside to take their land.

Scott, a member of the Noongar people, who live in the far southwestern part of Australia, has published four previous well-received novels but has received particular attention for “Taboo,” which has won four major Australian literary awards and was nominated for a number of others.

In a sign of the author’s stature, the Australian embassy in Washington, D.C., has brought Scott to the U.S. for several days this past week, and he’ll appear tonight (Friday, Sept. 6) at White Square Books in Easthampton. His new novel has been published in this country by Small Beer Press of Easthampton.

“Taboo” draw its title from the fraught history of Aboriginal-white relations, as the book’s narrative is built in part on a visit that Wirlomin Aboriginal Australians are about to make to a site in southwestern Australia. There, over a century ago, their ancestors were murdered by white settlers, who had sought revenge for the killing of a white man by natives. The Aborigines, in turn, had  killed the settler after he raped an aboriginal woman.

The massacre site has long been considered “taboo” by the indigenous people. But Dan Horton, an aging white rancher, wants to honor the wishes of his late wife, Janet, to try and atone for the past violence on their land and so invites the Wirlomin to a proposed “Peace Park.”

One of the people who shows up — and who emerges from the crashed truck in Kepalup — is Tilly Smith, a young woman who some years back had briefly been Dan and Janet’s foster child. Her father, an Aboriginal man, has been imprisoned for crimes against her mother, a white woman, but now counsels other inmates to give up violence.

Violence, or the threat of it, still hovers over the landscape. There’s Dan’s estranged son, who’s been kicked out of the house and is full of rage. Tilly, as well, has been victimized in different ways by her own people, and she’s now an orphan, traveling with a former inmate, Gerry, who has his own history of sexual violence. All of this background means the reconciliation effort between white and Aboriginal Australians faces some bracing headwinds and uncertainty.

Yet, as the British Guardian newspaper notes, “Taboo,” which is written in very straightforward prose, is “an overwhelmingly optimistic novel, even though grounded in a brutal modern reality.” It’s a story of Aboriginal people reclaiming their traditions, languages and stories and presenting themselves as something more than just victims of white colonization.

Indeed, Scott employs various narrative voices, including an overarching one that represents the spirit of the Aboriginal ancestors — and as that voice says at the beginning of the novel, “Our people gave up on that Payback stuff a long time ago, because we always knew death is only one part of a story that is forever beginning … the story will speak of magic in an empirical age; of how our dead will return, transformed, to support us again and from within.”

Kim Scott will read from “Taboo” and talk about his novel at 7 p.m. on Friday at White Square Books in Easthampton.



by Wally Swist

Shanti Arts Publishing

“The Bees of the Invisible,” a new collection from Amherst poet Wally Swist, is the third of a trilogy of poetry volumes he has released with Shanti Arts Publishing of Maine — and as one critic says of the new work, “This book is a hallmark of a major American poetic voice at its fullest and very finest.”

In his new collection, divided into six sections, Swist presents odes to nature and quiet contemplation, and he looks back at some vivid moments from childhood. He also finds inspiration in Rainer Maria Rilke, the early 20th-century German poet, offering adaptations of some of Rilke’s lesser-known work, including “Das Marienleben,” a 13-poem sequence dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Though Swist can write beautifully about nature, he also finds humor in some of these portraits. In “Opposum,” he describes a late-night encounter along a road with an especially big example of these “cranky marsh and woodland hermit[s],” with the “eerie coals of its eyes” burning in the glow of his car’s headlights as “a blowing fog swirled / around the bristling hairs / of its body and the long / spiky tail, accounting for / a third of its body.”

How about a testament — if you can call it that — to an invasive pest of a plant, purple loosestrife? “How could such a regal / hue belie such aggression? / We see the way your spring up / wild among cattails / to crowd them out / and overtake the bog.” 

And in “Walt Whitman on Donald Trump,” Swist channels another American poet who celebrated nature and humanity’s place in it, but this time on a different subject: “May the best in us topple you / and the ugliness of your kind, may we / persevere in preserving our largesse / and swamp you in the imbecility / of your own making, your smallness / of character, or lack thereof entirely  ...”

Wally Swist will read with three other Shanti Arts authors at 7 p.m. on Thursday in the Woodbury Room at the Jones Library in Amherst.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at


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