Review: The Yield by Tara June Winch

The Yield opens with a man dying as he is putting the finishing touches on a dictionary of Indigenous words. He is Albert Gondiwindi, and after his death his family gather to mourn at the former mission where they still live, including his granddaughter August, who ran away when she was 15.

August returns to her family’s land alongside the Murrumby River, to grandmother Elsie, her aunts, and her first kiss Eddie Falstaff. Not present though are her sister Jedda, who vanished at the age of 9, and their parents. What happened to Jedda, and why August ran away are two of the driving threads of this novel.

But there is more going on. In a second part, woven through August’s story, we read entries from Albert’s dictionary. These give glimpses into his life after being removed from his family, growing up in a boys’ home, and meeting his wife through her political activism. There are hints too of dark family secrets. (The full dictionary appears at the end, from z to a, “a nod to the backwards whitefella’s world”).

The third part takes the form of a letter from Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf, a German immigrant who founded the mission in 1880 where Albert was born. While a reasonably sympathetic white man, Greenleaf bears witness to some of the most insidious horrors of Australia’s colonial history: systematic rape, dispossession, and enslavement.

In the background of all this is a battle over the country, with a mining company tellingly named “Rinepalm” preparing to open a nickel mine on the Gondiwindi land.

Also there’s time for plenty of laughs, many tears, and things even get rather hot and heavy at one point. It’s a lot of ground to cover, but it is amazing how lightly this story flits along. At no point does it get bogged down or drop one of the many balls in the air.

I was reminded a lot of last year’s Miles Franklin Prize winner, Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko. Both feature granddaughters returning to rural towns after their grandfathers’ deaths, both feature land battles, and both shine a glaring light on the horrors in Australian history (they even share bisexual, or at least curious, protagonists). But whereas Lucashenko’s novel comes out spoiling for a fight, The Yield strikes a more elegiac tone. They complement each other perfectly.

The Yield takes its time to gather force, but when it reveals its hand it offers a quietly radical and generous way forward. Language is core to the novel’s solution to healing the wound in Australia’s past. As one character says, “when people go overseas the first thing they do is learn a handful of words”. Words are “the way to all time”; Albert refers to his gathering of words as “time travel”.

Like the plot, the writing is effortless, leaping from historical truth-telling to romance to family banter to politics with ease. And integral to it is Albert’s dictionary, sharing Wiradjuri words and concepts, encouraging us to say the words so they “hit the back of your mouth.” It powerfully demonstrates the inseparable bond between culture and country. My favourite word might be “girra-wiiny”, a quiet place with many flowers. Or yura, the word for wheat: explaining how the Gondiwindi milled grains for tens of thousands of years, Albert notes “every person knows bread in one way or another”. This book is full of such startling ideas. Through Albert’s dictionary comes a vision of a possible Australia, one that lives more harmoniously with the land and its many peoples.

Gay rating: 2/5 for one queer character, and an at-least curious protagonist.

The Yield is published by Penguin.

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