One day as he watches his father die in a freak farming accident, eight-year-old William's life is irrevocably changed. Confused and perplexed, the farm laden with debts, William is told by his sickly mother that they will no longer be able to afford to carry their farm deep within the Darling Downs, North Western Queensland, alone. Their rescuer comes in the form of John McIvor, a mysterious uncle who appears to be willing to take both of them in, offering them refuge in Kuran House, a stately old squatter mansion.
Once owned by the White family, a dynasty of wealthy pasturalists, Kuran House has unfortunately seen better days. Now a crumbling ruin, the huge manor house has been reduced almost to rubble, with the aging John McIvor the only tenant.
Running what is left of the property is left to Mrs. Griffith, a morose and elderly housekeeper.
McIvor is a desperate man. His entire life's work has entailed claiming ownership
of the Kuran property. For thirty years he has been the strength behind Kuran, and now he is desperate to find an heir to his fading dynasty. With his hopes resting on William, McIvor embarks on a program of education, instilling into his young protégé the history of the house and its vast surrounds, even allowing William to take the rest of the year off from school. But John is not prepared to hand over the property without William proving himself first, and although William's mother is desperate for security and a better life, William has to perform for his uncle; he has to show that he is sympathetic to the values and morals of his conservative heritage.
However, William's life at Kuran House is fraught with difficulties. He soon develops a severe earache, and while his mother tries to care for the old man in order to secure a place in his heart, William finds himself caught in a battle of ideals and of wits. The arrival of Ruth McIvor, John's estranged daughter, ensures that there will be no safe ground between father and daughter
- or William.
John McIvor represents old-world Australia, the White Australia movement. Head of the local Australian Independence
League, the aging patriarch is horrified at the impending Aboriginal Land rights legislation about to be passed by Paul Keating's current labor government. Suspicious of a party that he sees as high-handed, he thinks that the politicians in Canberra are debating ways to deny the basic entitlements of ownership over land and, consequently, security in that ownership.
Rather than seeing the Mabo case as a victory for aborigines, John and his ilk see the establishment as a malevolent force, telling "us where we can and can't go in our own country." John believes the real Australians are those
who built the country on hard work and self-reliance, reflecting a world of independence, the backbone of Australian society, who slowly built up their stations and built stockyards and shearing sheds. The anger steadily burns in John, "the land speaking to him directly, pulsing up through a stone at his feet."
McGahan is a talented storyteller, especially when combining narratives. As the story unfolds - alternating between 1993 and the world of John's youth in the middle part of the
last century - the author steadily reveals a complex web, an intricate social, political, and historical map reflecting an important time on Australian land rights history.
The author also excels in describing of the vast beauty of the country, bringing the Darling Downs to life in the reader's eye. This is a place that is alive in its own right: it has a history, and it
is growing and changing all the time. It almost breathes. It is a world of smells, "of pine and eucalyptus, damp earth, rotting leaves, campfire smoke, the deep glistening green of ferns and creepers in the rain forests, dappled with sunlight."
Perhaps the novel's only fault is that so much of the action is filtered through young William. The house calls to him, the sense of ownership enlarging his veins and enriching his blood, and he certainly feels a sense of place.
But there is only so much political, historical and social talk that an eight-year-old can take in. One wonders whether a boy of his age would really have a full understanding of all the issues involved.
Still, the author beautifully evokes the regrets of past and present, through the main storyline and through John's fanatical search for redemption and William's growing desperation for a more fulfilling life amongst the halls of Kuran House. The novel is also a national metaphor, a perpetual symbol for a country that still battles with the mistakes of its past, a fitting testament to those who have been dispossessed.