It’s always dangerous to read a book set in a place you know well. Sometimes there’s that uncanny feeling of something not quite right. Other books depict a place so accurately they might reflect something uncomfortable back at you, like Christos Tsolkias’s The Slap did for “progressive” inner Melbourne. Such is the case with Heather Rose’s Bruny. I grew up in Tasmania, and spent many summers holidaying on stunning Bruny Island southeast of Hobart. Like the characters in the novel, I find myself breathing out when I touch down in the state.
Astrid “Ace” Coleman, a conflict resolution specialist for the UN, is our narrator. It’s the very near future – perhaps 2021 – and she is called away from negotiating with warlords in the Middle East to a place suggested to be even more politically fraught: Tasmania. Her twin bother JC is premier; her half-sister Max is opposition leader. An enormously expensive bridge from mainland Tasmania to Bruny Island has just been damaged in a “terrorist” attack. In response, the state and federal governments have rushed through foreign labour laws, allowing 300 Chinese workers to come and complete the bridge before the next state election. It’s Ace’s job to make sure protesters don’t get in the way. But she is also drawn to the question of who is behind the bridge attack.
Bruny is a fast-paced political thriller. It would make a great movie – those landscapes! – and Rose has already done the work of casting: the Greens leader is said to be a young Penelope Cruz; a consultant to the government is a young Colin Firth; the love interest is more “Chris Hemsworth than Chris Pine”. Rose marries politics to family drama to great effect. It’s welcome to see an older and powerful woman at the centre of what can often be masculine narratives.
There are plenty of candidates for the bridge bombing, from protest groups to scheming politicians to foreign actors. Rose’s depiction of Tasmania (“for Tasmania” she says in the acknowledgements) is hilariously accurate, down to the squabbling activist groups that have sprung up around the bridge project (Bruny Friends Group: against; Bruny in Action: for). She also brilliantly skewers that smug Tasmanian belief that they live in the best place in the world (they do), and their disdain for “sea changers and tree changers” and “climate change refugees”.
She also, perhaps unconsciously, reveals an uncomfortable side of Tasmanian parochialism. Tasmania is deeply suspicious of China. According to the novel, 15% of private dwellings and a third of farm land is held by owners with ties to China. It could be accurate. As of 2018 24% of Tasmania’s agricultural land (including forestry) was held by foreign interests. However, Australia-wide, the biggest foreign landholder is the UK, just ahead of China. There is no state breakdown available.
Large spoilers follow.
In Bruny, we find out that the Tasmanian government has made a deal to literally sell the state to China. China will send 5 million favoured citizens to the state, which will become a strategic base in the Southern Ocean, as well as a food bowl and water tank. The Tasmanians, all 500,000 of them, will be generously encouraged, and ultimately forcibly removed, to Bruny island. Hence, the bridge.
I have no problem with wacky and devious plots to take over the world, and the revelation here is so bold I cackled aloud. I love a good conspiracy and Rose’s outrage at political expediency is well-targeted. But I also fear it is tapping a well of racism and xenophobia that has been drunk from many times before. From John Marsden to Pauline Hanson, Australians have been scaring themselves stupid with “yellow peril” since federation. It has real consequences. Most recently two Chinese students were assaulted in Melbourne due to racist stereotypes around COVID-19, part of an epidemic of racism spreading with the virus. 84% of Asian Australians have experienced overt racism.
There are genuine questions to be asked about the Chinese government’s influence in Australia. We are right to be outraged at China’s record on human rights, most recently the disappearance of critics and the imprisonment of perhaps a million Uyghur people in Xinjiang. But also, we should look in our own backyard too.
The actions of the Chinese Communist Party must be separated from Chinese (and Asian) people if we’re to engage usefully, and I’m not convinced that the novel does the work. Emblematic of its approach is the narrator’s statement that “there are only two types of Chinese”, those brainwashed by CCP, and those who have fled. Dehumanising references to “the Chinese” do not help. When a Chinese worker falls from the bridge and dies, we see nothing of how his compatriots react. Meanwhile we spend pages with the white bridge foreman and his grief over the incident. (To be fair, conflating a people with a party does seem to be part of the CCP’s PR strategy).
I want to give the novel the benefit of the doubt. There are a number of named Chinese (and Taiwanese) characters, but it is only those who have rejected the CCP that are given a similar interiority to the novel’s white characters. I have no doubt there are strong elements of satire (maybe it’s all a joke, for Tasmanians), but the novel is dedicated to those who are “still awake”, which suggests it does have some earnest intent.
I was also troubled by how the novel locates its events in Tasmanian history. There is plenty of context for China’s move on the state, whether it’s the next wave of empire-building, rise of despots, late capitalism, climate change etc. But several times characters note that this has happened in Tasmania before, when the British invaded and violently dispossessed the Tasmanian Aboriginal people of their land, right down to their forced removal to an island in Bass Strait.
It’s an uncomfortable line to draw. China’s “chequebook colonialism” in the novel may have ulterior motives, but it is at least peaceful, and the Tasmanian and Australian governments play an equal part. What happened to the Tasmanian Aboriginal people was a racist genocide – the systematic destruction of a people and their culture. Once again, the use of the dehumanising term “Aborigine”, which Aboriginal Australians generally ask that we avoid, doesn’t help.
What is it with this fantasy of Asian invasion and colonisation? John Marsden did it too in Tomorrow, When The War Began. Do we think, by frightening ourselves with our own oppression, that we somehow absolve ourselves of historical injustices? Noongar writer Claire G. Coleman tackles this brilliantly in Terra Nullius, and without resorting to racist tropes.
Novels and art, I think, should complicate and empathise, even political thrillers. I would have loved to read about how the Chinese bridge workers feel in their labour camp, so far from their families and in a strange land, and their response to the death of their colleagues, whether they are CCP followers or not.
It’s a funny time to be reading this. The main sword China holds over the government in Bruny is Chinese students and tourists. But coronavirus felled that source of income in one blow. The US might have abdicated its role in global peace in the novel, but it and its institutions still remain a beacon of democratic good. In the end, Bruny makes the international politics of 2021 look rather quaint and polite compared to where we are now.
Gay rating: 2/5 for two named queer characters.