Nanberry: Black Brother White

Written by Jackie French
Review by Elizabeth Jane

When Nanberry sees the great ships of the white-skinned ghost-people sailing into Sydney Cove, he does not realise that he is witnessing the birth of the Colony of New South Wales. He is full of imagining – what would it be like to slip across the line between land and sky? How could he possibly realise that this is the first of many fleets – bringing not only convicts, but also death and disease? As one of the few indigenous survivors of a smallpox epidemic, Nanberry is adopted by the colonial surgeon, Doctor White. No longer part of his own people, or fully accepted by the white settlers, Nanberry must walk a lonely path on the edge of society – a path that will eventually take him far across the sea.

Written in a shifting third person point-of-view, this novel gives us the experience of Nanberry, the colonial surgeon, his two female servants, and the young boy Andrew White, who becomes a brother to Nanberry. We start off fully identifying with Nanberry, and the Surgeon White, but these two characters diminish in importance as the novel progresses, and we are given the rather skipped-over experience of Andrew to bring the narrative to its close.

This is an ambitious novel, but it doesn’t hang together quite as well as Jackie French’s earlier works. There seems to be a question at its core – what is this story actually about? But having said that, the story is still eminently readable, with the hallmarks of careful research and well-crafted prose for which French is known. Based on a true story, it brings to life an important character in Australia’s early history, a young indigenous person who successfully walked the difficult path of two worlds. It deserves to be read for that reason alone.