Ellen Van Neerven / UQP
Van Neerven / UQP Heat and Light marks the triumphant debut of a talented young writer. In her triptych novel, Van Neerven writes with deceptive simplicity, painting broad strokes as well as capturing precise moments from a range of Aboriginal characters’ inner lives. The first section tells the interconnected stories of several generations of an Indigenous family, unspooling the history and consequences of one enigmatic woman’s actions upon later generations of her family. The reader is clearly in sure hands as Van Neerven portrays a world of magic, fate and hardship. Her narrative style deftly moves from first to third person in alternating short chapters, offering the reader satisfying glimpses of many characters’ points of view. The second section portrays a futuristic world where ‘plantpeople’ have become a new species within Australia — they are eerily like humans but also have characteristics of plants — which humans are trying to eliminate. The premise is ripe with apt themes of racial discrimination and otherness. The protagonist is Kaden, a young Aboriginal woman simply hoping to learn more about her own country and family. After unwittingly playing a key role in attempting to eradicate the plantpeople, she becomes close to one of the leaders of this species, leaving Kaden with a consequential choice. The ending is unexpected and satisfying, a rare feat in futuristic portrayals. The third section is a collection of short stories; some are just a few pages while others are treated to greater depth. Many of the stories do not have traditional endings, but instead leave the characters deep within the difficulties they have found themselves. These stories portray Aboriginal characters who are often mixed race and gay, alienated from both Aboriginal and white Australian cultures. The reader is offered harrowing and heartening slices of these worlds. Van Neerven tackles many weighty themes: Indigenous displacement, mixed race and sexual identity, the future of Aboriginal culture, among others, and she does so through strong and beautifully rendered characters mired in everyday existence.