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‘The aftershocks from 1996 continued, year after year, often in the life of the individual more devastating than the Port Arthur massacre itself. Yet always the subsequent tragedies could be traced back to that unspeakable Sunday.’
Coming home to Tasman Peninsula with her Northern Irish partner, Ruth journeys into her own psychic trauma as well as that projected onto the raw, monumental coast. When Ruth’s brother John helps his fourteen-year-old son apply for a firearm’s permit—almost two and a half decades after Port Arthur—they risk condemning those who do not remember the past to repeat it.
A Port Arthur survivor, Marina has returned to the Peninsula with her brother Moon to pack up Doo-No-Harm, the family holiday home, after their mother’s death. Marina’s personhood was so violated by her early life experience that she has been left an angry she-wolf about to set out on the hunt. In a convoy of duck rescuers, the siblings head for a confrontation with shooters on the wetland.
In these lives choreographed by trauma, damage and the ramifications of wilful forgetfulness, transformation can only occur after an extremely painful lesson.
‘A task fraught with dangers: to be an honest and unflinching guide to this most terrible of Australia’s hauntings. Amy Barker reminds me of the young Dostoevsky, how in his novel of a Siberian prison camp he could descend the ladder of humanity step by step because even in the most degraded there must still be the divine spark. Not a safe place for writer or reader—but a novel of blazing and humbling integrity.’—Peter Bishop, writers’ advocate and formerly Creative Director of Varuna, the Writers’ House.
‘In a masterful follow-up to her award-winning debut novel Omega Park, Amy Barker has created a simple and beautiful tapestry of lives lived in the shadow of the unthinkable violence of the Port Arthur Massacre. Set against the backdrop of the Tasman Peninsula’s raw and rugged natural beauty, and its tragic legacy, Paradise Earth recounts a series of separate but interconnecting stories that explore the vicissitudes and fragility of the human condition. The result is both lyrical and provocative.’—Chris Nyst, author of Cop This, Gone, Gettin’ Square, and Crook as Rookwood.
Learn more about Paradise Earth by listening to Amy’s interview on ABC Radio National’s Books and Arts program.
Paradise Earth’s Amy Barker and Stormbird Press rise from the ashes of Kangaroo Island’s deadliest wildfires to win Gold in the Australia/NZ/Pacific Rim Best Regional fiction category in the 2020 Independent Publisher Awards.
“In the wilderness the boundary between humankind and the divine is but a membrane and if you do not remain vigilant, penetration can occur without you so much as realising it.” (page 15)
“It is trauma though, the wounding, mortal wounds—heart rot is the silent killer.” (page 25)
“There are some people you encounter in life who leave impressions on your soul, like a passer-by’s handprints in a fresh cement pour.” (page 49)
“For though the wrongs we do to others may seem insignificant, we do not know the damage that has already been done them, or will be done them, and so we cannot predict what impact our venial sins will have on the world.” (page 53)
“1996 was the year her faith was fossilised, like an insect caught in the blood flow of a giant swamp gum, dead and trapped forever in amber.” (page 193)
“The reason the hunters and rescuers stood in such close proximity was not some truce resulting from the shooting accident; it was merely the price of admission to a rhombus of shared sunshine.” (page 224)
Serious Literature Honoured in Serious Times
July 28, 2020
In a year marked by the collective trauma of Australia’s horrific bushfire season and the current Coronavirus pandemic, Paradise Earth by Amy Barker is honoured as a finalist in the literary fiction category of the 2020 International Book Awards.
Paradise Earth Wins IPPY Gold
May 12, 2020
Paradise Earth author Amy Barker and publisher Stormbird Press rise from the ashes of Kangaroo Island’s deadly wildfires to win Gold in the Australia/NZ/Pacific Rim Best Regional fiction category in the 2020 Independent Publisher (IPPY) Awards.
Paradise Earth Release Announcement
April 29, 2020
Stormbird Press announces the launch of Paradise Earth, from multi-award-winning author Amy Barker.
The following extract is from the first chapter of Paradise Earth. Both extract and novel focus on events surrounding the Port Arthur massacre and its effects on individuals within a community, as well as the legacy of violence and suffering on a physical landscape.
Inside the Penitentiary, it becomes immediately apparent to Ruth that the ruin is infested with the past like toxic black mould. History, a living organism, releases spores that feed on its decaying matter. This colony branches out across the remnants of internal cell walls, the shelving and the bolt fixings for sack hammocks. It threads over the foul air egress vents in the rear wall and through the rubble debris piled up in corners. Its roots travel deep, right to the bloody Indigenous land beneath the foundation stones. Unsuspecting tourists risk exposure simply by breathing in the air as they access the ruin via its purpose-built walkways. When they pause in the interpretive areas to read about the past, they are unwittingly ingesting it.
“Not real big, are they?” a woman in front of Ruth remarks of the cells to her male companion.
“Can’t go far when you’re in chains,” he replies.
Lions, Ruth recalls. The Commandant used to call the men imprisoned on the ground storey lions because they wore leg irons. Together, Ruth stares with the strangers into the closest cell, now just a brick cavern with moss-covered earth, two metres deep and one metre wide.
“Look at the size of them!” the woman exclaims, as the reality sets in. “God.”
Shaking their heads in disbelief, the pair move on.
As Ruth climbs to the stabilised second storey, on what is more scaffolding than staircase, a child begins to scream. The sound cuts right through her. In this place, to scream is dangerous for there are too many ghosts to be woken. Within the ruins, scars left where floor levels were keyed into the brickwork are the only trace of absent floors in the upper storeys. When Ruth finally locates the source of the relentless sound, she is peering down at the little girl, Carly, held like a life-size doll under one of her mother’s arms. With a bird’s-eye view, Ruth studies her closely. Carly is having difficulty breathing, her eyes are red and watery, her nose is runny with mucus. Ruth determines, as the girl is carried out, that she is definitely suffering a reaction to the Penitentiary’s infestation.
Outside, Ruth follows Carly who is climbing the hill, having made one of the miraculous recoveries that only a small child can. The blonde head darts like a white rabbit between the Commandant’s Office and the Guard Tower, up to the Officers’ Quarters and Smith O’Brien’s Cottage, reserved for political prisoners. Ruth wonders where the father of the two children is. Are the parents separated? Divorced? Or, did he just choose to stay home this afternoon and watch the football? Only when Ruth comes within a few metres of the family does she realise, this woman, Carly’s mother, might be a ghost. Everybody on the Peninsula knew someone involved in the massacre. Most knew several. Beyond the striking physical similarities—the natural butter-blonde hair, milky-white skin, heart-shaped face—the woman is the age her friend would be today, had she survived. These are the children, the children she might have had. A life she might have made for herself. Seventeen years was not long enough, not nearly long enough.
Ruth’s old friend is buried in the small, historic Clark Cliffs cemetery, overlooking Norfolk Bay, a ten-minute drive up the road from her parents’ house in Nubeena. After the massacre, those who had been involved in the tragedy or directly affected by it found themselves faced with a decision similar to the ‘stay or go’ predicament in a bushfire. Like Ruth’s own family, after her death her family chose to stay. Other locals made the decision to leave early and over the coming year moved to the mainland, or further, some severing all ties to the Peninsula.
In the aftermath, it was those who delayed making their decision until it was too late—like those who find themselves in the firestorm and at the last moment flee from their homes in their cars or on foot—who were ultimately consumed by it.
As the sun slips behind clouds and the entire Historic Site darkens, an autumnal gust perforates Ruth’s lips and then Seamus’s hand spoons the small of her back.
“We’re losing the light,” he warns.
From the Penitentiary, a sealed path along the waterfront leads them, on their way back to the Visitor Centre, directly past what is called simply, Memorial Garden.
At the entrance, Ruth pauses with Seamus, hands held behind their backs, palm in palm, like priests or policemen to scan the information provided. Ruth knows the details by heart. More than two decades ago a young man armed with three high-powered automatic weapons opened fire in a busy café on this very spot and then continued his shooting rampage throughout the grounds of the Historic Site. The gunman was tried and convicted of 35 counts of murder.
“These shootings you had down here happened in ’96, straight after Dunblane,” says Seamus. “Was this a copycat crime?”
“I don’t think so,” says Ruth. “I’m really not sure but I don’t even remember hearing about Dunblane at the time to be honest.”
“I was living in Scotland, studying at the University of Dundee,” says Seamus. “It’s not something you easily forget. Those school portraits they showed on the news of the beautiful wee bairns. Even if you weren’t directly affected you still felt like your heart had been ripped out. People, complete strangers, cried for days.”
Ruth leaves his side.
Where the most lives were lost here, they have built a Pool of Reflection. Inscribed around the stone edges are simple words that acknowledge pain, loss and courage and ask visitors to cherish life as a way to honour the dead. Coins shine up from the bottom of the rectangle of chill, shallow water. Tourists who visit the Port Arthur Historic Site must wander in assuming it’s just another ruin. Chancing upon an artificial body of water they feel the irresistible urge to wish, so take a coin from their pocket or their purse and toss it in, unaware that they are asking favours of the dead.
In one corner, a plaque of bronze leaves lies submerged and Ruth does not need to count them to know they number thirty-five—thirty-five fallen. Glancing up, she finds the cross that bears the victims’ names: two beams of Huon pine, the horizontal wide and rough-hewn, the vertical cut neat as a fence post, standing in the shadow of the escarpment. At its foot lies a bouquet of white lilies wrapped in brown paper and tied with brown string, the only clue that three days ago was the anniversary of the worst mass murder in post-colonial Australian history.
Ruth interrogates her surroundings, searches for some trace—psychic, spiritual or otherwise—of the violence that occurred. Moments pass and she discovers nothing but the natural beauty of the place. The proliferation of native flora exists in defiant contrast to the manicured lawns and mature English trees that dominate the rest of the landscape. Even when a flock of Green Rosellas fly low overhead, threatening to destroy the tranquillity, their wings merely mimic the sound of rustling leaves. The past, for now at least, is a sleeping dragon.