Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland is a short story cycle that masterfully weaves together narratives of time and place. While written as a collection of short-stories, Storyland reads like a novel where the land itself is the central character through which we experience change, growth, drama and loss. It is through the changes to the land, from pristine wilderness to ecological disaster that we observe and reflect upon Australia’s past, and its possible future. The characters who inhabit this landscape across the centuries are as fleeting and transient as the birds that flit between and carry us on to the next story, with the land itself bearing the scars of our actions across time.
Storyland begins in 1796 with the story of Will Martin through the lens of white settlement. We follow three men as they journey through the Illawarra region in search of fresh water and settlement opportunities in a story that explores first contact between Indigenous and colonial cultures. The conflicts, racism, violence and discrimination between colonial settlers and Indigneous Australians is a theme that runs throughout Storyland—from the devastating story of Hawker’s ambition in 1822 to Lola’s determination to survive as a female farmer (for me the most moving of the stories) in 1900, to Bel’s child’s perspective of domestic violence in 1996 and finally to Nada’s story that extends as far forward as 2717 where she recounts the environmental catastrophe and social collapse that ends her world as she knows it—Storyland explores the social and cultural divide that founded modern Australia, transforming the personal and the individual into an allegory enacted upon the landscape.
The time-frame of Storyland is vast against the fleeting span of a human-life or Australia’s modern colonial history, but Storyland alludes to a timeless depth and richness of history held in the land that humanity has barely skimmed, and may potentially lose. Each story is linked by the motif of a bird moving between the narratives, as witnesses that are born of the land, but also free to view it from above. The stories are also linked by place, object and shared narrative with oblique references to common histories to create a network wherein the past is always active in the present.
McKinnon’s narrative voice is clear and light as she carefully guides us through an intense exploration of Australia’s shifting identity, at times dark and shameful, at others bold and inspiring. She doesn’t shy away from the violence of our past, nor the capacity for violence as well as love that still shapes us today and into the future. Storyland is deeply moving, engaging and deceptively simple. This is a book that forces introspection, and self-reflection and leaves an important mark on the landscape of Australian literature.