Fraser Island, Australia 1882. The population of the Badtjala people is in sharp decline following a run of brutal massacres. When German scientist Louis Müller offers to sail three Badtjala people – Bonny, Jurano and Dorondera – to Europe to perform to huge crowds, the proud and headstrong Bonny agrees, hoping to bring his people’s plight to the Queen of England.
Accompanied by Müller’s bright daughter, Hilda, the group begins their journey to belle-époque Europe to perform in Hamburg, Berlin, Paris and eventually London. While crowds in Europe are enthusiastic to see the unique dances, singing, fights and pole climbing from the oldest culture in the world, the attention is relentless, and the fascination of scientists intrusive. When disaster strikes, Bonny must find a way to return home.
What I Thought:
The world of Victorian ‘freak’ shows and the like seem to be popular at the moment – perhaps led by The Greatest Showman’s depiction of PT Barnum. But where that film shows a somewhat rosy and empowering view of exhibiting people, books like Paris Savages and Christina Henry’s The Mermaid depict the distasteful underbelly of exhibiting people for an audience.
Katherine Johnson’s latest book formed the basis of her PhD so, as you can imagine, there is a depth of research here that is really to be admired. Where she is forced to include her own narrative, where details of the real-life Badtjala are sketchy, she is still able to evoke the Victorian period in detail.
At the start of the book, Hilda Müller is living in paradise with only the death of her mother adding clouds to her horizon. Her life on K’Gari (Fraser Island) is carefree as she and her father live among the Badtjala people, teaching them and learning from them. But Herr Müller has plans to take three of the Badtjala people, Bonny, Dorondera and Jurano, to Europe – for what he claims is to show Europeans Aboriginal people with a view to establishing a protected reserve for the Badtjala on K’Gari. Whatever his motivations at the start of the trip, they begin to change as the exhibition of Bonny, Dorondera and Jurano begins to bring in large sums of money.
One of the most hard-hitting aspects of this novel is that the exhibition of living humans is so easily undertaken by entrepreneurs in the so-called civilised world and that so many are willing to pay to gawp at the ‘exotics’. Aside from the group from K’Gari, Katherine Johnson touches on many real-life groups of people who were exhibited and taken advantage of during this period. Eskimos (in the language of that time), Senegalese people, Samoan people, Native Americans and many more groups from colonised nations were exhibited in Europe and the US, often for much less that their fair share of the profits made and at the detriment of their own health as they came into contact with new diseases and poor living conditions.
Bonny, the assumed leader of the group, has his own reasons for travelling to Europe – he wishes to petition Queen Victoria for the protected reserve. He has no ambition for money and fame, and yet even he is disillusioned when he and his friends are pressed into performing as ‘savages’ when they have skills, knowledge and language enough to walk among any crowd of people.
As expected on starting this book, there is tragedy in it which is hard to read. Good intentions so very often warp and change and so to do they here.
Katherine Johnson does a fantastic job of bringing us into the Victorian period, but is very careful never to speak for Bonny, Dorondera and Jurano, which I think is important. She allows us a glimpse into what they may be thinking and feeling using a ghost character without presuming to speak for them. It’s an interesting device and it strikes the right note here.
Although fiction, this book is so rich in research and detail that it reads very much like non-fiction in places. It’s a great starting point for those interested in this period and the so-called Human Zoos of the Victorian era.
Paris Savages is published by Allison and Busby.
This post is part of a blog tour to celebrate the publication of Paris Savages. Why not check out some of the blogs below for more reviews and exclusive content?
Please note: I received a copy of this book through Netgalley for review. All opinions are, as ever, my own.