Book Review: Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss

Melissa Lee
August 12, 2021

Wiradyuri woman Waghadhaany is never given a choice in mid-19th century New South Wales. Taken away from her family at the mercy of White law and living in a community whose values contradict her upbringing, she is gradually taught lessons on grief, respect and understanding – all while teaching those who will listen much more.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Content warnings: racism, mentions of r*pe, s*xual harrassment.

Perfect for when you are in the mood for: historical discourse and Aboriginal stories

A photo of a hand holding up Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray in front of a flower bed.
I am the tree, Louisa. I am still the same, just a bit different here because of how I live, but that hasn’t changed who I am inside, who I am as a person. I am still the Wagadhaany I was the day you met me, and for all the years before you met me. And I will be me for all the days ahead.

Plot and Execution of Premise: 4/5

The book definitely delivers what the blurb promises. As historical fiction, the plot points in Wagadhaany’s adult life feel natural enough to justify what happens next. Chronologically, the catalysts for the major changes in her life are nature (specifically Murrumbidgee Bila), White people and herself, allowing for good character development as she grows up and learns more about her place among people and the world.

Pacing: 4/5

I really appreciated how the book gives us enough time to explore each stage of Wagadhaany’s life before a new plot point is introduced. The only thing keeping it from five stars was the use of frequent time skips in the last few chapters.

Story and Themes: 5/5

Overall this is a captivating story rooted in culture, history and a love of community. The themes are glaringly obvious to even the most casual reader, which, I would argue, is preferable to something that relies on over-symbolification. It’s what every historical fiction story should aspire to in terms of balancing contextual exposition with events and relationships that current readers can identify with.

Craft and Writing Style: 3/5

For the first six chapters, from both child and adult perspectives, there are all kinds of underlying discourse we are able to pick up from Wagadhaany’s observations – carefully chosen dialogue, vivid description and hunches she cannot explain (though readers have strong suspicions as to their cause). As I kept reading, though, the writing started feeling repetitive and detached from the characters. There were pockets of time within chapters where I would be immersed in the description of the characters’ emotions or the landscape, but all too soon I would be yanked back into the role of a bystander who was permitted to observe only the most basic of reactions. I want to be able to pick up on the subtleties of dialogue, not have it explained to me after nearly every sentence. The exceptions to this were whenever Heiss incorporated Wiradyuri language throughout the book. Reintroducing the reader to Wagadhaany’s language made her reconnection to the people of her culture all the more powerful. It is written in a way that you don’t need to constantly flip to the glossary at the end of the book, which also makes for a smooth reading experience.

Characterisation: 4/5

All of the characters are uniquely compelling and leave deep impressions in each others’ lives, whether they acknowledge it or not. I fell in love with the way Heiss wove a network of characters that felt realistic and grounded in their beliefs. Wagadhaany is definitely my favourite character (partially because she will always ask herself questions and evaluate her surroundings), but I wish I had been given an almost equal amount of page-time to grow attached to some of the other characters. Louisa was (to me) more interesting and complex than Yindyamarra, but I never really understood where those complexities were getting her. Yindyamarra, as nice and respectful as he is, didn’t feel developed beyond being a stockman as well as Wagadhaany’s safe place and reconnection to culture. He became a lifeline in a sense, but the couple’s dynamic felt overshadowed by the friendship between Wagadhaany and Louisa. That being said, all of the characters felt extremely human and didn’t fall into distinct tropes. Also, David was a slowly unfolding origami – he looked nice initially but there was ugly scrawl in the centre. Beautiful, subtle characterisation.

Notes on Diversity

While the story mainly focused on distinctions between White Man and First Nations People, we got to meet both children and Elders, businessmen and housewives, and the privileged and marginalised. With the book’s emphasis on the equality everyone deserves and the double standards that pervade society based on race and gender, we see how everyone is rich within their set of circumstances as well as struggling due to societal expectations.

Final Rating: 3.5/5

I enjoyed walking with the characters until the end of the story, but I don’t think I’d revisit this book because the writing didn’t keep me engaged the entire way. This is one of the books I’m glad I read to the end, and it will remain a part of my list of 'books that helped shape my worldview'. I would definitely encourage you to give this a read at least once in your life.

Illustration of three and a half stars drawn onto a torn slip of paper.

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