Feature | Tasmania first: ecofascism and the settler invasion fantasy

Part way through Bruny, Heather Rose’s first foray into the thriller genre, Dr Astrid Coleman (UN fixer and covert CIA agent, ‘six feet tall and trained to defend myself’, twin sister to the Tasmanian premier, half-sister to the Tasmanian opposition leader, scion of a political dynasty and proud ‘sixth-generation Tasmanian’) turns to her love interest, Dan Macmillan (retired-paratrooper-turned-tradie-turned-works-manager with a Celtic sleeve tattoo, ‘Paul Newman blue’ eyes and ‘a Chris Pine been-down-Texas-robbing-a-bank look’, but ‘strong’ like Chris Hemsworth) as he skins up a joint to ask ‘Why are we letting paradise get invaded?’ The two have just conspired with Astrid’s brother, Liberal premier John ‘JC’ Coleman, to conceal the death of a Chinese worker on a vast suspension bridge being built to connect Bruny Island and its mixture of wealthy holiday shack owners, gastronomes, bespoke hoteliers and artisanal farmers to the Tasmanian mainland—a project bankrolled by the Chinese Communist Party’s Belt and Road initiative, waved through at the highest levels of state and federal government. The dead worker is one of hundreds flown in from China, their extra labour necessitated by a terrorist attack that takes out half the bridge just before construction is complete—an attack later revealed as a false flag operation carried out by the Australian secret services.

The workers are an advance guard, softening up the unsuspecting residents of Tasmania for the final stage of a full-blown Silent Invasion. China is buying Tasmania from the federal government to use as an advance base—for the annexation of Antarctica, as a food bowl for its ‘exploding’ population, and as a model community for Chinese citizens of high social worth. The displaced Tasmanians, meanwhile, will be forced to take up residence on Bruny, lavishly compensated with money and, in JC’s words, ‘state-of-the-art facilities on one of the most beautiful islands in the world’. It falls to Astrid and a ragbag crew of cultured, upstanding sea-changers who own property on Bruny and just happen to have deep connections with the intelligence community to beat back this yellow peril and defend the Tasmanian homeland and the freedom of its sons and daughters by … limiting foreign investment and regulating tourist numbers by cranking up prices. NIMBYs of Tasmania, to arms!

Blurbed as ‘The stunning, explosive new novel from the bestselling author of The Museum of Modern Love, winner of the 2017 Stella Prize’, Bruny is, according to the Allen & Unwin PR department, a ‘searing, subversive novel about family, love, loyalty and the new world order’, ‘a cry from the heart and a fiercely entertaining and crucial work of imagination’, one that dares to ask ‘burning’ questions like ‘How far would they go? How far would you?’ and ‘What would you do to protect the place you love?’ To which this review hopes to add a couple more, such as ‘How did a Stella Prize–winning author come to write a neo-imperialist thriller, the commercial appeal of which depends on racist titillation and the fever-swamp conspiracies of the far right?’ and ‘How did the book pass through established outlets of literary opinion, not just unscathed, but positively larded with praise?’ The short answer to these questions, like most of the questions in the novel itself, is ‘China’—but, unlike most of the questions in the novel, on closer examination, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

The trouble starts early. The time is roughly 2021–22, and Bruny’s narrator, Astrid, nicknamed ‘Ace’ because ‘they were my initials, and because I was good at poker […] Any game where I have to hide the truth’, arrives as part of a ‘midnight convoy’ on an entirely derivative Middle Eastern street—‘dusty […] with the usual piles of rubbish’—outside an entirely derivative ‘compound’ with ‘traditional dun-coloured walls’, in company with an entirely derivative ‘American ex-president’, to meet an entirely derivative emir with ‘a lean, bearded face […] beaked nose and dark, inscrutable eyes.’ The emir is a representative of a resurgent Daesh, who, in Rose’s near future, have ‘open passage to the sea through Turkey thanks to President Erdogan’. ‘This’, Astrid narrates, bitterly, ‘was what the US withdrawal had done.’

On the surface, Astrid and the ex-president are here at the behest of the UN to negotiate an exchange of prisoners—fifty Daesh fighters for 136 Yazidi women ‘abducted into sex slavery […] broken, diseased, and extremely damaged.’ Secretly, ‘Ace’ is working for a ‘black cell’ of the CIA determined to continue US adventurism in the Middle East and beyond despite the isolationist bent of the recently re-elected US President—a transparently caricatured Donald Trump. Tricking the emir with a false offer of a seat on ‘the new UN Council for the Middle East’, Astrid negotiates the release of the Yazidis, then passes on the coordinates of the emir’s compound and training camp to the US, both of which are promptly and deniably bombed with white phosphorus. The ex-president calls to express his derivative admiration and thanks: ‘I was right to trust you’. It’s at precisely this moment ‘Ace’ receives a call from her brother, the premier of Tasmania, asking her to use her skills as ‘a conflict resolution specialist’ to investigate the recent bombing of the Bruny Island bridge—a request she refuses until ordered to it by her black cell superiors.

As an opener and introduction to Bruny’s main narrator, ‘Ace’, this episode succeeds only in the sense that it communicates the novel’s peculiar tone—an admixture of puerility, commercial cynicism and racial paranoia. It’s a remarkable novel that gestures so openly at its use of racial and cultural stereotypes, from the ‘usual’, ‘traditional’ nondescript middle-eastern streetscapes to the emir’s ‘beaked nose’. Despite Rose’s previous work, there’s no sense here that she is attempting to bring to the thriller genre any peculiar literary insight, stylistic gusto or originality. Quite the opposite. The scenes, characters and dialogue on show in this opening chapter are all drawn from what might be termed the US ‘media-military industrial complex’, post-911 productions that reached an apotheosis of sorts in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, a dramatisation of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden approved and, allegedly, partially written by the CIA. Bigelow’s relentless CIA analyst, Maya, is an obvious model for Rose’s Astrid, as is Homeland’s bipolar genius, Carrie Mathison.

All three characters represent a particular brand of white feminism in imperialist mode, hawkishly asserting a limited, sometimes overtly supremacist form of gender equality backed up by the full force of the US war machine, laundering imperial violence by ‘liberating’ their oppressed sisters—hence Rose’s ‘extremely damaged’ Yazidis, and the subsequent use of white phosphorus on the emir and his men. These women’s superior powers of empathy, intellect and intuition allow them to recruit local assets, order drone strikes and engage in enhanced interrogation, all the while raging or eye-rolling at the old white men too venal, cowardly or stupid to see what must be seen and do what must be done. As well as the weight of global mastery, what Rudyard Kipling famously and repulsively termed ‘the White Man’s burden’, these characters shoulder what might be thought of as the White Woman’s burden: all this, plus the white men, too. Like Sandbergian feminists, they ‘lean in’ not to disrupt the system but to demonstrate their fitness to lead it, stiffening the spines and lips of their drooping menfolk in the process. They are, in this sense, an iteration of the eighteenth-century gothic heroine of sensibility, invested with exquisite moral instincts that allow them to part wrong from right and dark from light, leading a corrupt or enfeebled society back to its cardinal (usually conservative) virtues.

What is distinct in Rose’s novel, however, is its unreconstructed and remarkably full-throated support for this reconstituted and renewed imperial project. Zero Dark Thirty’s Maya and Homeland’s Carrie are faced with harrowing moral and political dilemmas that offer, at times, a complexly ambivalent picture of a world order driven by US foreign policy, further problematised by their relatively marginal position as white women. Homeland in particular communicates a profound discomfort at the ease with which personal conviction is translated into extranational action. Carrie’s bipolar plunges from euphoric confidence to annihilating despair shadow and prefigure the motions of a global superpower whose domestic agenda determines the fate of the world, her weaponisation of her sexuality and compulsive but professionally imperative seeking of intimacy with her targets producing a paranoiac atmosphere of self-estrangement that recalls John le Carré and Patricia Highsmith. The CIA and the intelligence services become both the cause and the effect of America’s madness.

Bruny’s Astrid, by contrast, openly pledges her allegiance to the old cultural and racial alliance of the UK and the US, with Australia an outpost for this empire of whiteness:

Gore Vidal was right: the US is a corrupted democracy, but it’s still the best chance humans have of living peacefully. Regardless of who’s in that chair in the Oval Office, there are interests that need protecting. Interests beyond America. As they say in the real estate game, location, location, location. The US is still the biggest economy in the world and it’s the heartland of democracy. There was no way our black cell at Langley was letting a competing foreign interest that close to Australia. That’s all I can tell you.

In moments of uncertainty, she quotes Kipling’s other great imperial hold-fast anthem, ‘If’, with its comforting refrain of world supremacy for the elect—‘Yours is the earth, and everything in it’. She teaches it to her daughters and nieces. Rehearsing a widely held centrist fantasy of the ‘adults’ of the deep state remaining in charge after Trump’s election, Astrid is either unaware of or unperturbed by the ironies inherent in her position as unelected enforcer of Pax Americana on stolen land, or her co-location of empire and real estate (‘location, location, location’), a trumpeting of the settler id so brazen it’s almost parodic. The ongoing role of US military intervention in the Middle East in both creating and outfitting groups like Daesh is never considered by Astrid or Rose in any significant way, their resurgence blamed, bafflingly, on the perfidy of President Erdogan of Turkey, one of many moments in the novel when diverse national, religious, cultural and ethnic identities are reduced to a single signifier (in this case, Islam), the most grating of which is Rose’s repeated use of ‘Aborigines’—how did this make it past her editors?

I say Rose’s use because it’s difficult to imagine a high-end ‘negotiator’ for the UN making a blunder like this, or using the sort of language preferred by Rowan Dean or your uncle who looks like Rowan Dean over Christmas lunch. The novel’s first-person present-tense narration, its awkward mediation between exposition and event, its credulity-straining plot, its tendency to deliver its ideas, such as they are, loudly and from centre stage, all combine to undermine Astrid’s distinctness as narrator. Rose and Astrid even share a background—they’re both loud and proud sixth-generation Tasmanians, with very little recognition of why that lineage might not be something to be loudly proud about. ‘Ace’ reads instead as a vehicle for Rose, who describes her narrator in interview as like ‘a rather naughty imaginary friend’ who sets her free to say things she couldn’t normally say; the rehearsal of a kind of clash-of-civilisations rhetoric that verges, often, on paranoid visions of racial conflict takes up a great deal of the novel.

Indeed, once Astrid lands in Tasmania, event and action take a back seat. For a person who works for the UN, and the CIA, and the Tasmanian premier, Astrid spends a remarkable amount of time on the verandah of the family holiday home behaving like a writer—journalling, drinking wine, smoking pot—and we spend it with her. The book is littered with strange redundancies in character and plot, all of which come to nothing. A chief engineer (who looks like Gene Hackman) and a swivel-eyed environmentalist (who looks like Michael Shannon) are introduced at length, but have almost no role. The disappearance of Dan Macmillan’s best friend and business partner under suspicious circumstances is left unexplained—as is Rose’s compulsive pairing of Bruny’s characters with international film stars. The ‘shocking’ revelation of the China plot is contained in a government report hand-delivered to Astrid by a neighbour on Bruny, Edward Lowe, whose ‘greying hair, dark eyes and rimless glasses’ remind Astrid of Colin Firth, and who just so happens to work for ASIO. Astrid’s tradecraft extends to driving to Officeworks to buy a scanner, scanning the documents, and then posting them to her ‘media connections’ from the local post office, which, Astrid notes, coolly, doesn’t have CCTV. Apart from some toothless political satire (all the bad men are fat, all the good men are ruggedly handsome) and some overcooked family drama (Astrid’s difficult mother is dying of cancer, her saintly father can only speak in apposite quotations from Shakespeare since his stroke), that’s about it.

In place of a credible thriller plot, Bruny presents a series of to-camera perorations from a handful of characters, usually Astrid, about the State of Things. ‘In Europe’, Astrid explains, woodenly, ‘a lot of people were overwhelmed by the tide of refugees and the influx of Islam. Now there was also the fear of speaking out. Of being seen as racist and xenophobic, anti-multiculturalism, anti-progress’. These leaden geopolitical summaries focus, almost invariably, on reactionary talking points like the right to offend and the ‘fall’ of Western Civilisation: ‘I remember intelligent TV. BBC. Civilisation. Brideshead Revisited. What people watch now, it’s the last days of the Roman Empire. It’s the lead in the water.’ As Anne Barnetson notes in one of the novel’s only critical reviews, ‘many of [Bruny’s] themes uncomfortably resemble the paranoid rants of xenophobes’.

Rose returns obsessively to population growth in the apparently profligately fertile nations of Asia and the global south. ‘India will outstrip China in population in a few years’, says Edward from ASIO who looks like Colin Firth. ‘Its need for food security will become pressing. Africa, too, but that will always be a basket case.’ Unless something is done, these pullulating hordes of coloured foreigners are set to sweep down on ‘pure’ Tasmania and purer Bruny, a threat that prompts some characters to contemplate solutions of a decidedly final character. ‘You’re not going to like this’, says Pine-Hemsworth hybrid Dan Macmillan with the Celtic sleeve tattoo, who saw action, like Benjamin Roberts-Smith, in the Middle East, ‘But maybe we could slow down the human population. Make it an opt in, not an opt out. With rules.’ And so on and so on to the novel’s central conceit and selling point: the invasion of ‘paradise’ and the terror of being replaced by the racialised Other—in this case, ‘the Chinese’.

Bruny here reaches its tributary with the conspiracist fantasies of the far right—specifically, narratives of cultural and racial ‘replacement’ of the ‘white’ race by coloured others with the connivance of shadowy government elites. Rose’s choice of ‘the Chinese’—a term that warrants inverted commas because of its fundamentally floating character, blurring national and ethnic categories to encompass virtually any degree of Asian ancestry—as the geopolitical, implicitly racial enemy draws on almost two centuries of bigotry and fear directed by white Australia against Chinese immigrants, beginning in a substantial way with the gold rush. The fear of ‘the Chinese’ fundamentally influenced the formation of Australia as a white ethno-state, from state sanctions against Chinese gold miners to the creation of the White Australia policy and the subsequent seizure of land and revoking of citizenship from Chinese Australians—an influence second only to the continued denial of Indigenous presence through Terra Nullius. Bruny references this history directly when Astrid’s brother, selling the bridge project, speaks of ‘the relationship between Tasmania and China going back over one hundred and fifty years’. Astrid immediately objects: ‘It made it sound like China had staked a claim years ago and was now coming back for more. That we owed them. This was a regular gambit.’

It’s this fear of competition, dilution and the despoliation of a white homeland that Bruny, with remarkable explicitness, draws on and confirms—partly to drive sales, and partly, I suspect, because Rose herself feels it. This is a novel that openly traffics in race-baiting—some deniable, some less deniable—to shift units, but also to signal what its author perceives as a real threat. While Rose, when prompted in interview, attests that she had to be ‘very careful’ to differentiate the Chinese people from the Chinese state, and Astrid piously notes that there ‘were many different sorts of Chinese’, only two kinds appear in the novel: those that have been Westernised, and those that haven’t. Bruny’s two token sympathetic Chinese characters, Henry Liu and May Chen, are both ciphers for Western culture, having lived in Hong Kong when it was still benignly post-imperial, and having studied abroad. They’re also profoundly deracinated. When May Chen invites Astrid to lunch, she shows her a collection of Japanese prints. Rose seems not to have done any research into Chinese art or literature, a fact that helps her characters either ignore or dismiss China as a cultureless wasteland of ‘cities so polluted, no child born in the last twenty-five years had ever seen a star’. Henry, a keen landscape painter, draws inspiration not from China’s deep and sophisticated traditions of landscape art, but from Winston Churchill. May Chen, a high-end negotiator for Beijing, has a visible tattoo—another failure of research.

Safely and obediently subaltern, Henry Liu and May Chen are contrasted against the coarse Party man, Henry Xiang, who gets red-faced on too much good Australian wine and makes a coarse joke about marrying Astrid to secure Australian citizenship—a depiction as tasteful and nuanced as Mickey Rooney’s Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—a ‘Chinaman’ literally out to take your land, women and jobs. Which is, of course, the basic plot of the novel. Nothing is allowed to complicate this strict binary. We never meet, for instance, a character with Chinese heritage born in Australia, let alone Tasmania. We likewise never meet any of the workers on the bridge, before or after the accident—they remain a faceless foreign mass. There’s certainly no attempt to liberate them, or get justice for the dead worker—when the Chinese contingent drop off a bottle of single malt whisky to Astrid to thank her for her discretion, Astrid and Dan drink it to loosen their inhibitions in preparation for their first moment of physical intimacy.

Fascinatingly, Astrid resists the role of white saviour, becoming instead white defender or avenger, her final, violent act of organising a CIA team to blow up the bridge between Bruny and the mainland a purging of all but the most harmless and loyal foreign elements—a concrete declaration of sovereignty and ownership, a triumphant Fuck Off, We’re Full: ‘I had fallen for an ideal. An ideal called home. And I’d created an act of violence to protect it […] I had done what it took to survive. For Tasmania to survive a little longer.’

The howling irony of a white narrator working for a foreign government making such a declaration on stolen land is precisely why Bruny can’t risk a more complicated approach to China and ‘the Chinese’, why it suppresses or rejects the complex history of Chinese presence in the settler colony, and why it racialises the issue of foreign ownership in the first place. In the same monologue in which she acknowledges the existence of ‘many different sorts of Chinese’, Astrid is also moved to ask how China’s imperial aspirations differ from the Anglosphere’s, from ‘a whole lot of Anglo-Saxons taking over the world two hundred years ago?’ It’s a question that cuts to the heart of the racial and cultural anxieties that drive both Bruny and the audience it’s designed to appeal to, one the novel answers, in the case of the Chinese, by asserting their fundamental unfitness, on a cultural and racial level, for the ‘pure’ Tasmanian environment—an environment, Astrid and others assert, they’d simply exploit and overrun. Astrid relates an anecdote from a ‘Bruny resident’ who’d ‘stopped her car because some Chinese tourists looked like they were in trouble’. These tourists, it seems, are unable to metabolise the sublime beauty of Bruny: ‘She said they were almost catatonic. When she roused them, they kept saying, “So empty. So empty.” Which she took for an existential crisis, not just the view of the ocean beach with not a single footprint in the sand.’

Such spaces are reserved for Astrid’s—and Rose’s—elect. Bruny, an island off an island off an island, is in many ways the perfect distillation of a certain kind of colonial sovereign fantasy, a prelapsarian dream of pure property. The island, like the cottage, is a unit of settler thought—an ahistorical space where the world can be started again, fortified at all costs against invasion from the outside. Behind its hard border of waters, the island suggests self-sufficiency by concealing or sublimating its relationships to trade, empire, industry and labour, engaging only selectively with the compromised, ambivalent modernity it remains fundamentally dependent on and implicated in. It irresistibly draws white flight, from the tech billionaires colonising Aotearoa’s South Island, to the homesteaders and cottagecore-ists drawn to Tasmania’s hinterlands.

Early on in the novel Astrid meets a white South African farmer, Maggie (who resembles Helen Mirren): ‘They all had a story, these white South Africans who made their homes elsewhere after apartheid ended. There was usually a dead relative, a torched farm, or worse secrets.’ Maggie owns and runs a boutique hotel for the super-rich called Solitude, and objects to the bridge because she is ‘trying to protect the only thing Tasmania really has going for it in the twenty-first century. Its isolation. Its quiet. Its lack of population. Its remoteness. We need fewer people with more money coming here’. Coolly announcing this new financial apartheid, under which the super-rich buy solitude and purity at the expense of the rest of the world, Maggie finds an enthusiastic listener in Astrid, who compares ‘this dignified graceful woman’ and people like her to ‘opponents to the slave trade, the suffragettes, the unionists, the environmentalists, the feminists’. We never find out what Maggie’s ‘story’ is, or the original source of her obvious wealth, but when the two women part, Maggie offers Astrid the contact details of her hairdresser, Fabian, who is ‘a whizz with all sorts of blonde’. Astrid is grateful, and admits she has been ‘admiring her colour’.

Reading this episode, particularly the apparently banal exchange over the hairdresser, blondeness and colour, I had my first wild suspicions that Bruny might not simply be a dunderheaded or cynical work by a literary fiction writer out of their depth attempting to write genre. Astrid’s admiring interaction with Maggie eerily recalls Peter Dutton’s suggestion, in 2018, that white South African farmers be given fast-track refugee visas based on their ‘cultural compatibility’, a dog-whistle with its origins in discourses of the far right. Maggie promptly disappears from the novel after this episode, but her ethos remains, informing Astrid’s extraordinary declaration after the destruction of the bridge: ‘This is my doctrine. The sea. The sky. The light. I am a jihadist for my faith.’ The operation to blow up the bridge is given cover by a vast, cleansing storm. A statue is built by anonymous commission where the bridge used to be, of a man and a woman staring down any who approach Bruny; it is titled Resistance.

By the novel’s end, political power has been ceded to the Tasmanian Greens leader, Amy O’Dwyer, who resembles a young Penelope Cruz and expresses herself in Churchillian cadence: ‘We are Tasmanians first, Australians second […] We will never surrender.’ With the Chinese expelled, O’Dwyer is somehow able to secure a universal basic income for Tasmania and usher in a kind of micronational socialism about which Astrid’s Langley superiors remain puzzlingly quiet. Astrid, in elegiac tones, closes the novel by noting that while Tasmania flourishes, elsewhere ‘people have learned again how to fish and grow potatoes, how to cultivate their front yards, darn their clothes and make do with less’. Meanwhile Astrid and Dan lead an idyllic life between their two houses on Bruny, riding Dan’s new Harley Davidson, travelling, drinking good wine. ‘I sleep really well’, Astrid confides, ‘the sex is fantastic’, and as for the bridge, ‘We’ve put it aside. Just like we did the death of the Chinese worker’.

A near-perfect instantiation of lifeboat politics, Astrid’s paradise, like Australia’s, is built on stolen land and the fundamentally barbaric notion that it is desirable and acceptable to allow others to suffer to maintain one’s own standard of living; that it simply isn’t the fault or task of ‘responsible’ Western countries to remedy or assist with problems afflicting less enlightened nations. Safe and smug in her colonial possession, Astrid fails to account for the lavishness of her own lifestyle, balancing it against the apparently teeming hordes of coloured bodies in the great elsewhere, this time in India, which, she repeats after Edward, ‘will have a bigger population than China before long’. That this population is vastly outstripped in terms of consumption and carbon emissions by subjects of the first world such as herself is seemingly beyond Astrid’s (and Rose’s) comprehension. Better by far to build a bulwark against the world on your pure island off an island off an island where nothing happens, a sanctuary reconquered and resecured through the expulsion of a threatening racial other where you can drink good wine with your weaponised boyfriend, the ghost of a Chinese worker adding a certain frisson to your couplings. All of this—the separatism, the micro-nationalism, ‘Tasmanians first’, the emphasis on ‘resistance’ that ultimately reinforces regimes of private property, Rose’s dedication of the book, to ‘everyone who is still awake’—is rhetorical, conceptual and political ground the novel shares with the far right.

Shared too is a certain sublime victimhood, carefully cultivated to add a sense of justice to a set of inchoate demands for supremacy and security for those already supremely entitled and secure. And it’s here that Rose inadvertently exposes Bruny’s most culpable evasions and erasures of history in a way that justifies critical attention. As Noongar author Claire G Coleman and countless other Aboriginal and First Nations authors have pointed out, the obsession with narratives of invasion and dystopia in settler-colonist writers and societies has its source in repressed colonial guilt and profound anxiety over the security of colonial possession. Resisting the invasion of hostile aliens, narratives like Bruny appease both, projecting the violent seizures that founded and maintain the settler colony onto the foreign Other, naturalising the heroic defenders, and replacing or erasing earlier histories of Indigenous survival and resistance—a settler move to innocence at least as old as HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds, the idea for which Wells got from the attempted extermination of Tasmanian Aboriginals by white settlers: ‘What would happen if Martians did to Britain what the British had done to the Tasmanians?’

In Bruny, Rose, via Astrid, once again makes this logic remarkably, almost parodically overt. Pondering the Chinese and the influx of foreign tourists, Astrid asks herself, with cringe-worthy insouciance:

Is this how the Aborigines had felt? I wondered. All these foreigners arriving. Arriving and not leaving again. Taking up residence. Making homes in all the best places. Establishing their own rules. Making you beholden to them. Until you were worth nothing. Just domestic labour or hired help.

This offensive and fundamentally absurd comparison leads not to self-reflection or a more complicated notion of invasion or settlement on Astrid’s part, but rather, as in appropriations of Aboriginality by parties like One Nation and similar reactionary ‘Freedom’ movements, a redoubling of white resistance: ‘What was the tipping point before Tasmanians said, “Enough. We’re slowing this thing down. We’re upping the prices. We’re limiting numbers. We’re protecting our special places.”’

Just how the ‘Aborigines had felt’ we never do find out. The novel contains not a single Aboriginal character, and makes no mention at all of the Nuenonne people, who have lived on Bruny for forty thousand years and continue to resist the settler-colony’s attempts to exterminate or relocate them—despite the fact that Weetapoona Aboriginal Corporation run Murrayfield Station on North Bruny, where Rose’s fictional bridge is built and destroyed, and where Astrid’s holiday home is located. In a novel that finds time to talk hairdressers with exiled white South Africans, this seems a culpable and fundamentally enabling oversight.

Refusing to acknowledge, in any meaningful way, ongoing Aboriginal presence on Bruny, Rose likewise refuses to acknowledge the true and horrific scope of the island’s—and Tasmania’s—history, and the fundamental irony and illegitimacy of Astrid’s stand. (Asked in interview about the prevalence of the gothic in the work of settler writers from Tasmania, Rose replies, blithely, ‘I’ve never found Tasmania a Gothic place so I’ve always wondered why we have such stories quite honestly’.) Kept safely in past tense—‘had felt’—the island’s true owners are likewise kept from contesting Astrid’s whitewashing of invasion and genocide, rendered in her telling as simply another wave of gentrification. Placing the true history of the systematic campaign of invasion and genocide against Astrid’s summary—a history that includes the Black Line and the ‘good intentions’ of George Augustus Robinson, ‘Protector of Aboriginals’, who led so many of those who survived the conflict to miserable deaths in model villages on prison islands off the Tasmanian coast—gives a scope and a motive to the novel’s suppressions. Though they exactly mirror the China plot that drives the novel, Rose makes no direct mention of Robinson’s establishments, the first of which he founded on Bruny Island.

To admit any of this is to explode the confection of Tasmania (and Bruny) as a quiet, peaceful island of natural beauty, a ‘paradise’—and to give a new significance to the existential crisis of those Chinese tourists so pitied by the superior residents of Bruny: ‘So empty. So empty.’ Emphasising the Edenic purity of the place—and willing to commit acts of terror to preserve it—Astrid and Rose clear Bruny of history, a clearance that re-enacts, at the level of the aesthetic, the violent clearance of the island’s original population.

Bruny here joins the broader project of a still-dominant form of Australian literature based on imported Romantic orthodoxies, reproducing a fundamentally ahistorical nature, darkly gothic or radiantly sublime—determinedly sweeping all signs of Indigenous presence away, reopening the landscape to imaginative and actual settlement, to settler fantasy and settler profit—an artistic declaration of, in Evelyn Araluen’s unimprovable phrasing, ‘tabula rasa and terra nullius’, a ‘magic pudding for the settlers to eat, and eat, and eat’. Bruny differs from this tradition only in its clumsiness and overtness, presenting an opportunity to catch the ideological operations of this aesthetic out in the open, saying the quiet parts out loud. For instance: when Astrid’s CIA team infiltrate the island to lay charges on the bridge, they do so by disguising themselves as artists. And while Astrid uses her newly liberated paradise for sex and consumption, Edward of ASIO (who looks like Colin Firth) uses his patch to build and run a giant set of model trains.

This fundamental compatibility with the broader sweep of Australian literature might go some way to explaining how Bruny managed to not only dodge controversy but receive rave reviews. ‘More like a hand grenade than a book’, writes Rohan Wilson in The Australian, ‘China has moved in to take advantage of Tasmania’s clean, green potential’, and Bruny is ‘the wake-up call we needed’. ‘Is there nothing she cannot do with her words and skilled imagination?’ asks Helen Elliot in the Sydney Morning Herald. A ‘faaaaantastic political thriller’, enthuses progressive writer Bri Lee via Goodreads, ‘I no longer work in a bookstore, but if I did I’d tell people this is the PERFECT summer read. Page-turner, explosions, intrigue, affairs and betrayal, and a touch of romance. It’s like an intelligent blockbuster.’ It’s difficult to reconcile this praise with Lee’s otherwise keen eye for social justice. Bruny went on to win the Australian Book Industry Association award for 2020 General Fiction Book of the Year, and finished at 10 on the Australian best-selling fiction charts in 2020. While Astrid bemoans the influence of News Corp. and three-word slogans as signs of cultural decay, the Courier-Mail covered the novel under the headline ‘CRAZY BRAVE TRUTH’, and reproduced Rose’s breathless summary of readers responding to her daring: ‘People who have read it keep sending me things from the press, saying “how did you know?” I’ve been told it’s brave and bold, clever and brave, brave and shocking, brave and “what the hell have you done?”’

What makes the book ‘brave’ is Rose’s willingness to race-bait, to give Chinese features to foreign ownership, to racialise a problem that is fundamentally political and economic. Pandering to Australia’s deep-seated anti-Asian racism, Bruny makes itself harmless to power and eligible for conservative praise, a licensed rebellion that falls in line with the evergreen political strategy of taking exception to China as a way of making us comfortable with the rule that everything is for sale to everyone else. China was, at the time of the novel’s publication, fourth in the list of foreign investors in Australia, behind Japan, the UK and, crucially, the foreign superpower whose disastrous interventions in the Pacific have destroyed whole nations, whose military bases occupy our land, whose extra-legal wars we fight in and for whom Astrid secretly works, the United States.

Thanks to the efforts of politicians and the media, the Australian public consistently overrates the level and influence of Chinese foreign ownership, providing useful cover for those interests that aren’t so easily racialised. If Rose had wanted to raise the alarm about foreign interference, our largest and most bellicose investor seems the logical target—but then this would have been a much harder book to write, and wouldn’t have sold quite so well. The comfort China offers settler-colonial nations like ours is that its imperialism allows us to pretend our imperialism is the more benign, a comfortable binary Bruny works hard to reinforce: ‘the US is a corrupted democracy, but it’s still the best chance humans have of living peacefully’. The old racial alliances still hold.

Ultimately, the rage and paranoia generated by Bruny won’t be felt by the Chinese state, or the foreign and domestic investors currently trashing Tasmania’s natural resources and monopolising its real estate—in the absence of Chinese tourists and investors, the settler colony remains perfectly capable of destroying itself. These will instead be felt in hate and suspicion directed towards anyone of Asian origin or ancestry living in this country, attacks on whom have only become more frequent since the pandemic. For all her posturing as prophet and fearless truth-speaker, the CRAZY BRAVE TRUTH Rose’s novel reveals is that ‘the Chinese’ are just as popular a scarecrow as they were in the colony’s infancy. The dispiriting answer as to whether or not Bruny is an alt-right sleeper text is that the considerable overlap between far-right and mainstream political opinion in this country renders the question moot.


Elias Greig

Elias Greig teaches and researches literature—before that, he sold books, and before that, shoes. He is co-editor of Short Takes on Long Views, a book series forthcoming from Routledge, and his bookseller’s memoir, I Can’t Remember the Title but the Cover is Blue (Allen & Unwin, 2018), is available in all good bookshops and some bad ones. He rents on Gumbaynggirr country.

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