The old Lie, according to WWI poet Wilfred Owen, is that there is glory to be found in dying for one’s country. Claire G. Coleman’s new novel of the same title is a systematic demolishing of that lie. After an allusive opening chapter – the mysterious destruction of a building containing archives in Melbourne – we meet Shane Daniels, an infantry corporal leading a retreat through a battle-ruined landscape that could be the Western Front.
From Coleman’s previous novel Terra Nullius I knew to expect some premise-devouring twists. Awake to our expectations, Coleman sensibly gets the big one out of the way straight up: Corporal Daniels is actually in space, fighting for an intergalactic government known as the Federation. There is a little more play with expectations to follow, but otherwise this is a novel that gets its power from stating things as they are rather than hiding them. Along with Shane, The Old Lie centres on five galactically-dispersed characters: Romeo, a Starforce pilot; Jimmy, a runaway teenager; William, imprisoned; and Walker, the survivor of some kind of terrifying epidemic.
Despite its fast pace, action-packed scenes, and light, banter-y dialogue this is an incredibly bleak (or truthful) vision of humanity, a Star Wars with zero hope. As with Terra Nullius, Coleman is using the future to condemn the past and present. Where we may have become dull to the suffering of others, she makes it new and horrifying again with a neat trick of identification (Alison Whittaker brilliantly teases out some of the dangers of this identification in her review of Terra Nullius). All of Coleman’s characters are Indigenous Australians, but by setting them against the multi-species Federation she forces a kind of human unity, disrupting our conventional ideas of Us and Them. It is useful and powerful, and as troubling as it should be.
Whereas Terra Nullius dealt with colonisation and invasion, The Old Lie is even more ambitious. The main allegory is for the Indigenous fighters who served in the Australian defence force in the world wars, and received none of the benefits of white soldiers. But Coleman has other huge issues in her sight: refugees and detention, deaths in custody, and, devastatingly, nuclear weapons, particularly their testing on Indigenous land in central Australia, the one link made explicit in the novel.
The writing dispenses with action and character quickly, sometimes too quickly: without properly establishing characters it sometimes has to tell us about them or devote paragraphs to exposition. But there is power here. The book labours over the suffering of masses, layering and repeating until it impossible to look away. There is so much death, so much visceral pain, within these pages. It makes for an often difficult read, as it should be.
Gay rating: 5/5 for lesbian romance, gender non-binary and non-conforming characters, and general gender obliteration
The Old Lie is published by Hatchette.