Title: Heart of the Grass Tree
Author: Molly Murn
Published: February 5th 2019
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary/Historical
Rating: 4 stars
Pearl remembers Nell’s feet stretched towards the campfires on the beach, her fourth toe curled in and nestled against the middle toe like a small prawn. They all have a curled fourth toe – Diana, Lucy, Pearl.
When Pearl’s grandmother Nell dies unexpectedly, Pearl and her family – mother Diana, sister Lucy – return to Kangaroo Island to mourn and farewell her. Each of them knew Nell intimately but differently, and each woman must reckon with Nell’s passing in her own way. But Nell had secrets, too, and as Pearl, Diana and Lucy interrogate their feelings about the island, Pearl starts to pull together the scraps Nell left behind – her stories, poems, paintings – and unearths a connection to the island’s early history, of the early European sealers and their first contact with the Ngarrindjeri people.
As the three women are in grief pulled apart from each other, Pearl’s deepening connection to their history, the island’s history, grounds her, and will ultimately bring the women back to each other.
Heart of the Grass Tree is an exquisite, searing and hope-filled debut about mothers and daughters and family stories, about country and its living history.
‘The grass tree when it burns begins in the heart and burns outwards. The grass tree when it burns sheds its blackened skin and releases its seeds like an offering. The grass tree when it burns sounds like a she-oak moaning in the wind.’
These are the raw and visceral words of Molly Murn, which come from her debut novel, Heart of the Grass Tree. A book that reaches deep into your soul, Heart of the Grass Tree is a resonating tale of family, history, ownership, land connections and belonging. There is an honest and poetic quality to Molly Murn’s writing. I have to say I appreciated the beauty of this novel and the important story it had to tell.
The story begins with Pearl, when she receives the news that her dear grandmother Nell has passed away. The death of a much loved family member brings Pearl, her mother and her sister to Kangaroo Island, where they come to say goodbye to Nell. A study on grief and loss, Murn shows us how each of Nell’s relatives deal with her death. Each connected with Nell in their own special way and they must deal with her death separately. Nell’s death also signals the unveiling of secrets, about their family and the island. It is Pearl who draws together the missing links – compiling Nell’s stories, artwork and musings to help her family to understand Nell’s unique link to the island. This experience, though hard in places, cements the bond between the women. It is also incredibly enlightening, revealing a great deal about the past.
“A brilliant achievement. A strange and compelling story that held me in thrall from the first to the last”. These are wise words spoken by Alex Miller, a well regarded Australian author. Alex Miller provided the back cover quote for Molly Murn’s first novel, Heart of the Grass Tree. An unusual book, Heart of the Grass Tree is completely independent from anything I have read before. It also struck me as an important novel, highlighting points in our nation’s history that we should know. An opportunity to connect with Australia’s history and past in the form of a compelling fiction novel is always a most welcome experience in my eyes.
I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to make of Heart of the Grass Tree. The cover is absolutely stunning, in reminded me so much of The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, one of my top five reads of last year. If you have a weakness for covers and book designs, you will soon fall in love Heart of the Grass Tree. Each chapter opening is accompanied by a native flower design, it is so visually pleasing that I am sure this one will earn a place in my keeps shelf. On the flip side, I did have a sense of trepidation going into reading this novel. One fellow reviewer warned me about the lack of speech marks in the dialogue. However, I do feel for this style of novel it certainly works without the use of speech marks. I honestly didn’t notice it and it didn’t both me. There is a fluid and lyrical style to Murn’s prose. It also made me turn my reading speed down a notch. I completely surrendered myself to Molly Murn’s writing.
History is a strong theme of this novel and I appreciated this aspect of Heart of the Grass Tree very much. I do confess to knowing little to nothing about the history of Kangaroo Island and the history of first settlement on the island. This aspect of the novel presented feelings of both insight and regret. It angered me to learn what happened to our first people once the settlers converged on the island. The Ngarrindjeri people suffered immensely. The history and influence of the sealers, really broke the very identity of Kangaroo Island, which Molly Murn outlines in her book. Connected to this was an interesting fable like story, or oral story that had been passed down about the sealers. I was held in Molly Murn’s grip while this aspect of the story revealed itself.
Family is the overreaching theme of Heart of the Grass Tree. Nell’s family go on a voyage of discovery, learning a great deal over the progression of the novel about their treasured but secretive Nell. In the process of returning to the island, Nell’s offspring are afforded with the opportunity to connect with their family history, their roots and transfer this new knowledge to their present day existence. They also learn how each deals with their grief and connection to Nell in contrasted ways. This made for an moving and emotional read.
Kangaroo Island could be seen as a supplementary character in the Heart of the Grass Tree, or the glue that binds this story together. There is such a paralysing sense of place attached to the story in all facets that I felt the force of Kangaroo Island infiltrate my consciousness. Molly Murn definitely enticed me to make a commitment to one day visit Kangaroo Island and do some further reading on its turbulent history.
‘The grass trees that lead crookedly down to our creek – Sol’s and mine, preside like elders over a slowly unfurling landscape. Steadfast and ancient, they know deep time. Bearing witness.’
There is such power to the writing of Molly Murn, it is perceptive, emotional and stirring. It does take some effort on behalf of the reader and it can be meandering, but do invest your time in discovering the hidden history of Kangaroo Island’s tragic past.
A resounding tale of kinship, the bonds of family, the past, memories, secrets, connections and the landscape, Heart of the Grass Tree is a novel I recommend highly.
Heart of the Grass Tree by Molly Murn was published on February 5th 2019 by Penguin Books Australia, details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of Heart of the Grass Tree, Molly Murn, visit here.
*I wish to thank Penguin Books Australia for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.
Heart of the Grass Tree is book #45 of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge