‘A novel about war on the home front and in the Middle East’, Honest History, 12 May 2019
Alison Broinowski reviews Julie Janson’s The Light Horse Ghost
Julie Janson knows about the other Australia. Descended from the Darug nation, in The Crocodile Hotel (2015) she wrote grittily about life in a remote community. She knows local history, too, and in this her second novel the street names, shops and mine tailings dumps in Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie are there to prove it. But all are off-limits to the Indigenous people whose land it once was. The egregious Mr Neville, the Protector of Aborigines, comes around measuring heads with calipers and sending mixed-race children off to a mission where they will be trained to be domestics and farm labourers.
Women hold the fort, while men fight a British war. Iris is in her early teens when Albert, her father, comes back to Kalgoorlie. Her Irish Catholic mother disparages the war and resents taking in laundry to feed her four children. Their excitement at seeing their father sours when he can’t hold down a job and drinks his wages. The desperate squalor of life in a rented, unpowered, unsewered house, relieved only by Albert’s occasional fun and hilarious games with his children, takes us back to Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection (1899), where the Rudds at least had their land.
Albert’s elder daughter is running off with boys, and the two sons have voracious appetites. Iris, who hopes to live as a writer, ‘solitary and compassionate’, is torn between her parents. She has inherited their better qualities, her mother’s determination and her father’s support for underdogs, including local Afghans and Aboriginals. She’s slow to anger, but her explosion, when the tyrannical nuns at her school beat her and her part-Japanese classmate, certainly clears the air.
Janson knows war history on the home front as well as in the Middle East. Albert, who is charming and loquacious and seems fit and well, isn’t the uncommunicative returned soldier of many narratives. On the contrary, he regales anyone who’ll listen with yarns about the exploits of the 10th Light Horse in Cairo, Jerusalem, Suez, Surafend, and the Great Ride. In Damascus they ‘liberated the Arabs’, says Albert, who rode his horse Sam into the city, to be greeted with sweets and flowers. He counters sceptical questions with ‘You weren’t there’. (At these and other places, Janson hints at how little our wars have changed in a century.)
‘You’re a traitor! We shot them in the war’, Albert tells a defiant, exasperated Iris. He claims to have shot a hundred men, and still lovingly polishes his gun, belt, and buttons. Albert’s regret at his horse being shot when the troops leave is the most genuine thing about him. ‘I’m a fraud’, he admits in a candid moment, and he was, even before the war, and so was his irresponsible father.
With his similar name, Albert Johnsson may well be drawn from life from someone in Janson’s family. There are ominous hints that either he or his elder son may shoot a gun in one of the family’s many violent arguments. But the hints aren’t realised. With the support of a neighbour, Iris eventually escapes to Perth, realising her dream of a job writing for a ‘ladies’ magazine’ and making money.
Iris and Miles Franklin have much in common, but Iris’ brilliant career does not ‘go bust’. Janson’s story of the postwar ‘roaring Twenties’ ends, however, just before the Great Depression.
* Dr Alison Broinowski was Vice-President of the Honest History association. Her other articles on the Honest History website can be found by using our Search engine. She co-edited and contributed to The Honest History Book.