Sorry by Gail Jones

a “review” that fast became notes because the three-to-four-paragraph-review -intention got out of hand, and I ceased caring that it had; although what follows is spoiler-free but for a demarcated section which could be rife with spoilery, but I wanted to put the remarks out there just the same, because, you know, I ceased caring. I suppose you could stop after the first break. and now this post is a whole  other big paragraph longer. [sigh.] you’re welcome, L.

Sorry by Gail Jones
Europa Editions, 2008.
(author copyright, 2007)
226 pages, tradepaper.

“I have thought about it all my life, this moment of eclipse. It is perhaps because departures are complex, not simple, that we are tempted to cast them reductively, as if they were episodes in a novel, neat and emblematic. There is a relish which people speak of their childhoods, but also a shrewd suppression of moments of inversion, when what is deducted begins to define the experience. In the deepest folds of memory, the heaviest sediments, paradoxically, are those produced by loss. The convolutions of what we are include unrecongnised wanderings, pilgrimages, perhaps, back to these disappeared spaces, these obscurely, intangibly attractive sites. I wanted a “last glimpse” memory so that I could seal the shack, and the death, and my life with Mary, into an immured and sequestered past. To guard against what? To guard against haunting.” (129)

Gail Jones’ Sorry begins with a child of 10, Perdita, caught in whispers and held hands with her sister friend Mary. Perdita’s father lying in a pool of blood on the floor. Perdita remembering. The page is turned and the narrator begins again and the story of Perdita’s childhood begins again with the introduction of her parents: who they are, how they meet, and how they come to be the way they are with one another. Perdita is then born, an unwanted intrusion into already private and individually driven non-lives.
Perdita’s Englishman father Nicholas is an anthropologist who has visions of grandeur which shift circumstantially. Coming into this career late, a veteran of the first World War, looking for something adventurous and meaningful and away, he finds a job in Australia and is posted at a rural cattle station. By this time he is married to Perdita’s mother (who is not all that young either), a woman as quickly and equally disappointed with her marital choice as her husband. Stella moves inwardly, isolated from familiarity and family (sisters with whom she was close). She clings, as she always has, to Shakespeare. She is prone to mental breaks and general madness and is completely self-absorbed.
Perdita is raised (in part) by the Aborigine people assigned the cattle station run by the Trevors, the Mrs Flora Trevor taking the lonely girl somewhat in hand. The Trevors’ youngest son, Billy, a deaf-mute, becomes one of Perdita’s only friends. Mary comes into the story a little later. Where the three will become one skin of a family : Perdita, Mary’s sister. Billy, Perdita’s brother. Their friendship means everything to Perdita, and the story.

The Reader begins to notice how the narrator is working her way around remembering the event with which the novel begins. She sets up the characters and the circumstances in as linear a fashion as the setting down of memory can be, sometimes nervously darting around a particular age–10–and moving forward. The narrator admits to flights of fancy, of concrete imaginings to events to which she couldn’t possibly be present, and with some melodrama, but I never felt a necessity to question her reliability on the whole. She is an adult, looking back. She is thoughtful in her expressions, particular in story, working her way around and toward an important revelation.
Perdita doesn’t mean to forget. The Listener of her Story understands that what happened must have been horrible. There are bright and beautiful moments of Perdita’s childhood to bask in, but much of her life was lonely, abusive, scary, and in need of some form of restitution.


After “the event” Perdita finds herself with a debilitating stutter. “I was filled with wild loneliness, guilt and grief. I thought i would die for all that remained unexpressed” (114).
Sorry in form evidences the complicated nature of relaying that which the story teller would express; that which the narrator would reveal. She could say, in a straightforward manner, quite eloquently, what “the event” meant; perhaps diagram out its complex layers, but it would hardly have been as effective, as compelling. Nicholas works at finding a way to express his desires for grandeur, for superiority, for purpose. Stella’s is the more fascinating form, using her recitations of Shakespeare to reveal her innermost thoughts, or just the feeling of the moment. Incapable of finding her own words, she has assimilated Shakespeare’s as her own, to be used at will, and often maniacally.

Perdita “knew that Stella’s madness had method in it. She almost pitied her expertise with such descriptive resources. Stella doomed, she realised, to emotional aggrandisement and the lunatic exaggeration of the otherwise everyday. Her redescription of life in Shakespearean terms meant that she was always strung in a poignant register; she was always unbearably, ponderously, poetic.” (124-5).

Billy was locked inside himself, deaf and mute, and yet held such gravity about him, in his eyes, in the fractious fluttering of his hands, in gentle and easy affection with Perdita. The novel takes a lovely and hopeful turn with Billy–I can provide that much of a spoiler, can’t I? Billy is the silenced witness to Perdita’s childhood. He is older than Perdita and Mary, seen dumb by the whitefella culture, but not underestimated by the girls, or even the Aborigine. He sees everything, and finds some forms of expression, but is held fast by a lack of resource.
An inability to communicate is crippling, and often destructive, in Sorry. And Perdita finds herself pulled into the mad and melancholy world–of her mother’s.

“Aloof as she was, caught in her own infirmity, Stella’s words still carried a sensuous violence. She had performed virtual murders as other women did gossip, and she had been seduced not by the comedies, but by the horror of the tragedies; not by love sonnets, mellifluous and sweet, but by those that dealt with the morbid erosions of time. Unmaking obsessed her, and the making of nonentity.” (202)

Perdita feared to become her mother. Feared to become unmade. Feared to be unmade by her mother. Her stutter caused her to withdraw and become more silent, to become invisible in the world around her.
It is a painful part of the story of Perdita’s childhood where Perdita would find moments where she felt love and affection for a mother who less frequently found moments in which she was affectionate with her daughter. The feelings were in some way a reassurance, because she should have some love for her mother, shouldn’t she? But the blood stain could only reach so far before dilution and dissolution; but how far?
As Stella had found true familial love with her sisters, so too does Perdita find it with her sister Mary, the Aboriginal girl who comes to help care for Perdita while Stella is hospitalized. Their connection is swift and deeply held. It is important to understand how deeply held Perdita and Mary’s sisterhood is. It is important to understand the people from which Mary was wrought, the Aborigine. The native cultural traditions are portrayed in stark contrast to the colonizing forces. They are intelligent, graceful, hospitable, wise, merciful.
What Sorry shares about the Aboriginal culture is relevant to the story, even as it is informative. No thing about Sorry feels inconsequential. The frequent and effortless dispensing of large words is not to propel the novel into high flying literary circles or to showcase the author’s lexical intellect. The narrator is intent on the most precise image, the most illustrative word to carry the complex weight of her meaning. Stella would apply the right quote from a Shakespearean story in the right moment. The setting would enhance and project the right amount of gravity. The novel’s title deceptively simple–in light of ignorance–is incredibly complex, heavily-weighted in meaning and context.

In considering the title, it is remarkable how infrequently the word itself appears in the novel. Nicholas’ sense of entitlement would never consider the word. Stella is too self-absorbed and in needing of the word herself to use it with any sincerity; is there a Shakespearean form to suit the occasion? Perdita comes to learn what “sorry” means to the native culture in a peripheral sense; she doesn’t register in childhood what she would come to register in adulthood.

“That was the point, Perdita would realise much later, at which, in humility, she should have said “sorry.” She should have imagined what kind of imprisonment this was, to be closed against the rustle of leaves and the feel of wind and of rain, to be taken from her place, her own place, where her mother had died, to be sealed in the forgetfulness of someone else’s crime. Perdita should have been otherwise. She should have said “sorry.” (216)

The revelation that Perdita comes to at the end of Chapter 22 is incredibly poignant and heart-wrenching. It is a perfect ending to the story. But there is Chapter 23. I was surprised to find that it was there.

++please skip to the next asterisk if you feel the need.++

Chapter 23 begins:

“What remains is broken as my speech once was. But I see now what my tongue-tied misery could not: the shape that affections make, the patterns that love upholds in the face of any shattering. It is not sentimentality that drives me to claim this, but the need–more explicitly self-serving, perhaps–to imagine something venerable and illustrious beneath such waste.” (225).

The narrator is looking for something “venerable and illustrious” amidst her regret, but “beneath such waste.” You realized before chapter 22 that some form of restitution could have been made for Mary, and that “sorry” should have been expressed. Regret is too mild a word for the grieving Perdita undergoes on her sister’s behalf. And what disgust in “waste” would drive the writer of this story to use the word “imagine,” “the need to imagine.” And that that which is “venerable and illustrious” still lies “beneath such waste.”
The author doesn’t leave the story in the passivity of regret, but in the outrage of inaction. The resilient beauty found does not negate the existence of “waste” in an event, or childhood, or historical contents. Some things should not be forgotten or without proper acknowledgement.
Perdita was wounded in her forgetting, and only found healing once she remembered–however painful the recollection. And yet, still later, she would need to reseal the past; and to acknowledge that she was doing it. That she opened up her memory for a purpose, and to prevent the haunting, re-seal it once more. “I wanted a “last glimpse” memory so that I could seal the shack, and the death, and my life with Mary, into an immured and sequestered past. To guard against what? To guard against haunting.”
“Afraid of slumbery agitation, or ghostly visits” (226), Perdita drifts into the peaceful dream she inherited from her mother. She sees what she herself has never seen–snow. And she instinctively understands that what she hasn’t seen would blanket, coat everything in white, and bring a sense of peace. “Everything was disappearing under the gradual snow. Calmed, I looked at the sky and saw only a blank. Soft curtains coming down, a whiteness, a peace.” (226)
The only peace Perdita could find is contrived, borrowed; the oblivion found in dreaming; in forgetting. And you wish it for her. At least for a little while. Until we needed her to remember. Because we need Perdita to remember, for all our sakes.


It is of interest to me how Sorry reads like a memoir, though somewhat self-consciously, and admittedly fictive; the narrative shifting in and out of remembering and remembered sequences, in and out of contemplations on the reliability of memory, the seeing/knowing child, the effects of fear and grief, on forgetting. I think that lovers of memoir and explorers into the ideas of memory and grief would enjoy Gail Jones’ novel.

“As he sipped his tea, gleefully misanthropic, Perdita and Mary exchanged frightened glances. He was like a shadow they lived under. He had become darkened and impersonal.” (66)

There is an incredible amount of violence perpetrated within the pages of Perdita’s childhood, and the forms vary in appearance and subtlety. Much of the content is angering, saddening, frightening, and ultimately depressing, and perhaps it is the author’s tactful withdrawals into contemplation or omniscient ability to provide a future that keeps the text from too crippling despondency.

The mystery of that day, the day in which the novel begins, really compels the Reader to continue on. The general avoidance to address that fateful day creates suspense. And once you know, once Perdita finally is able to remember…

Gail Jones’ way with language, her threaded images, metaphors, the extending whisps of established scenes, the emotion and intelligence in the craftsmanship of the form and story of Sorry is remarkable. The novel is placed in four parts, each with an epigraph, a quote from Shakespeare, not to be ignored. The four parts seem to function as good psychological breathers and to introduce a faint contemplative shift in memory/story; with the aforementioned quotes as tone-setting. And there is “A Note on “Sorry”” after the novel; which I read before. The “Note” is enlightening for those as ignorant as I am in regards to Australia-anything. My knowledge is hazily collected from a few films, novels, and travel narratives. Sorry is quite powerful on its own, but the “Note” creates a greater poignancy; and the characters as representations take on a greater clarity. Oh, the essays Sorry provokes. Oh, the Activism it incites…


fragments, notes:

“For those who do not read, for whom reading is not part of the texture of knowing, the gorgeous complication, the luxurious interiority, the thrilling extrapolation from black marks to alternative reals; for those who might not understand what it is to collaborate in making a world, or building a thought, or consolidating, line by line, the salvage of something long gone; for those bereft, that is, and booklessly broke, those word-deprived, craving, caught in dull time, it will seem odd that tow girls, with not much to do, spend a few hours of each day hidden in the valleys of pages. Proxy lives, new imaginings, precious understandings.” (78)

Readers will find pleasure in the narrators’ musing on Reading, and find interest in Mary’s belief that reading something someone else has read connects the two; which has Perdita then wondering about the relationship contracted with the author.

“Later Perdita would learn with fretful misery how useless was her knowledge. Her mother’s history and geography were wild surmise, her politics were eccentric to the point of crude error; even her Shakespeare was a nonsense, partial accomplishment, a clutter of stories and quotations, an ingenious but lamentably archaic vocabulary, the integument of exile, neurosis, migrant sadness. This maternal inheritance, more than anything, would serve to humiliate her.” (76-7)

Sorry was very informative for me. And I did read it with the hopes of learning. I know next to nothing of Australian History, and the effects of World War II, as they touched Perdita’s childhood, was interesting; the Australian internment camps for the Japanese, the death of the Dutch refugees, the evacuations. I really enjoyed the glimpses into the Aboriginal culture; the comparisons between the whitefellas and the blackfellas. I appreciated the glaring accusations of disinterest and intentional inaccuracy directed at the government/colonizers. If you’ve an interest in the colonialism/Imperialism, Sorry is very good; subtle enough in disbursement, but hardly apologetic in its criticism.

a note on the cover:  while I find the present cover attractive. I think the image of the house at night with the kerosene lamps lit as viewed upon return by Perdita would have made for a remarkable cover for this story; though perhaps too dark?


I should end as I should have begun, where I could have left off confidently: with the quote by The Guardian found on the cover of the edition read: “Jones’s writing is fluid and memorable…the story proves powerful and poignant.”

Published by L

I read, and I write. and until recently, I sold books.

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