‘Part of the dictionary we think we should carry’ [book review]

A review of The Yield by Tara June Winch

Anyone who has ever doubted the power of language to bring people together and tear them apart would do well to read Tara June Winch’s The Yield with all possible haste. This remarkable novel is a deep and moving exploration of the role words play in shaping individual lives and communities, and is also – in both the real and fictional worlds – an effort to preserve the Wiradjuri language, spoken by the Wiradjuri people of south-eastern Australia. With compelling characters, an absorbing storyline and a layered structure, The Yield is not just the work of a truly accomplished author, but the kind of book that has the power to adjust its readers’ view of the world.

Cover image The Yield

Divided into three interwoven sections, Winch’s novel spans a period of roughly a century and tells both personal and community histories from the perspective of insiders and those standing on the periphery. To say that it is multi-layered would be an understatement, yet somehow these very different narrative threads never get in the way of one another. Nor, despite their unequal weighting in terms of word count, does one necessarily seem more important than the others – though readers will no doubt have their favourite, each adds something essential to the story, and the links between them are so carefully formed that it is easy to slip between different voices, periods and narrative styles.

Admittedly, my opinion in this regard was influenced by the author’s note at the end of the book, in which she writes briefly about the history of the Wiradjuri people and language. The additional context made me look back over certain sections of the novel with fresh eyes – particularly those containing a letter written by Reverend Greenleaf, a German-born missionary who sets up a home for Aboriginal women and children shortly after the outbreak of World War I. As I was reading, I often found his rather distanced voice frustrating – he touches regularly upon the shocking treatment of Aboriginal Australians by white settlers, but often seems to be glossing things over. Having read the author’s note, however, I began to see this detached, outsider’s tone as significant: a remnant of the dominant narrative which, though kindly meant in the reverend’s case, is not the voice that should be permitted to tell this story. Thanks to Greenleaf, the reader is all too aware that much is being left out: there is pain here, but it hovers beneath the surface, forcing us to look closer and confront events that have historically been swept under the carpet.

More immediately impactful, for me at least, were the sections of the novel that deal directly with language and gave me characters I could empathise with. In the more conventional narrative, a young woman, August, has returned to her grandparents’ house in the heat-addled settlement of Massacre Plains to bury her beloved grandfather, ‘Poppy’ Albert. Shortly before his death, Poppy had begun compiling a dictionary of the Wiradjuri language, whose entries comprise yet another distinct section of the novel and are made up of fragments from his own life – memories of his boyhood in a home for Aboriginal children, his encounters with the kindly Reverend Greenleaf and, later, the unravelling of the mystery around the disappearance of August’s older sister, Jedda. In parallel to these dictionary entries, we see August in the present day as she attempts to come to terms with both her raw grief and the town from which she ran away a decade previously, then slowly begins a search for Poppy’s now-vanished project and becomes embroiled in a battle to save her grandparents’ land from a mining company threatening to destroy it.

The past and its constant influence on the present is one of the major themes of The Yield: metaphorical ghosts are everywhere August looks, as she flicks through her grandfather’s overdue library books and unpacks boxes containing mementoes of her and her sister’s childhood. That the past cannot simply be scrubbed out is a powerful and important message within the context of the novel, both in highlighting the deep damage done to people like the Wiradjuri – which August still encounters in the present day in the form of racist slurs, casual segregation, and a slow cultural erasure through the destruction of land and language – but also in providing a message of hope. Poppy’s dictionary, though simply a mass of words on paper, is the key to securing the future of August and her family, helping her not only to reconnect to the place she comes from, but also to begin to heal. The author’s note again underlines this, as does the incomplete dictionary placed at the very end of the novel – a poignant note on which to close, and one that leaves a lasting impression. Language can be destroyed, Winch seems to be telling us, but it can yet be rescued – and, once put down on paper, its power is formidable.

Winch’s own use of language in The Yield is masterful: crushing heat seeps from every page and her authentic dialogue, though sparing, tells us more about her characters than any third-person description could. There is a certain haziness to the novel, particularly at the beginning, which adds to a dreamlike atmosphere that gradually becomes sharper as we wade further in. This is perhaps a deliberate reflection of August coming to see her surroundings through clearer eyes, or perhaps happens naturally as the reader grows accustomed to Winch’s style. Whatever it is, it provides a huge dose of atmosphere, and makes the novel utterly absorbing. Arresting imagery adds an extra layer to the underlying message about language and its impact, such as when August looks back on her childhood and remembers how ‘the tractors approached November as if the year were a song, harvest the chorus’.

Embodied in this sentence, and running like a thread through the entire novel, is the double meaning of the word ‘yield’: both a harvest, and a succumbing. As August yields to the places and people of her childhood, allowing herself to be welcomed back in, so too does she begin to reap: when she joins protestors battling the mining corporation towards the end of the novel, finally ‘she felt whole, fighting for something’. And yet, as believable and moving as this process is – and as much as the reader too can yield to the magic quality of Winch’s prose – the ending of the novel gives in perhaps a little too much, with the final section of August’s narrative seeming to be in a sudden race for the finish. I personally could have done with less definitive closure, although this is a small quibble with what is otherwise an impressive novel.

With language, Poppy tells us, ‘you can go all the way back’ – back to the stories of his ancestors, back to the events that make people and communities what they are. Language can show you where you come from, but it has the power, too, to inflict damage: giyal-dhuray, the word for ‘ashamed, have shame’, he writes, has ‘become part of the dictionary we think we should carry’. From spoken lies to library books, letters to exhibition notes, Winch shows us how words can have the power to break – but, if saved and respected and used for good, also to heal. Poppy’s dictionary is the legacy not just of a fictional character, but also of real people, and this fact must never be forgotten. The Yield confronts the past, but also looks to the future – offering not so much redemption, but an indication of all that still needs to be done. Forced to bear the word giyal-dhuray all his life, Poppy concludes towards the end of his dictionary: ‘we mustn’t any more’.

The Yield by Tara June Winch is published by HarperVia. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.

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