Barker, Amy. Paradise Earth. Stormbird Press, 2020. RRP: $29.99, 324pp, ISBN: 9781925856224.
Writing a novel with a basis in a real-life tragedy is a difficult task, yet Amy Barker manages it with compassion and grace in her second book, Paradise Earth.
Set in Tasmania, Paradise Earth follows Ruth, John and Marina as they navigate through the trauma that has come from their connections to the infamous Port Arthur Massacre of 1996. Ruth, though away at the time, feels guilt and psychological trauma knowing that her friend was one of those killed by the gunman. Her brother John similarly wasn’t there on-site, but knew the gunman and is haunted by what he might have done to prevent the massacre occurring. Marina is a Port Arthur survivor, traumatised by what she witnessed on that fateful day.
Though Barker’s novel uses the very real background of the gunman and the events of that day, the rest is pure fiction. But such is her skill as a writer that it’s hard not to feel like these are real lives, of real people marked—physically and mentally—by that tragedy.
Themes of trauma, haunting and our connection to the past are prevalent in Paradise Earth. The imagery that Barker uses to depict these themes, and subsequently the lasting effect of this trauma, is simple but powerful:
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 decaying matter. (5)
The idea of history as a ‘living organism’, one that can infect the present, helps to symbolise just how deeply the events of the past can affect those people who remember them. And the idea of physical place being haunted by tragedy occurs throughout Paradise Earth. John, Ruth’s brother, is a farmer who has stayed in the area they grew up in. He’s direct and pragmatic, but the burden of the past and the events of the day of the massacre weigh heavily on him:
Why anyone would want to go back to Port Arthur is beyond him. John is certain the entire place is haunted. It has been a cursed place since convict times. Now it is just an evil place. A stain on the Peninsula. An open wound, still, in many ways. (37)
John goes out of his way to avoid Port Arthur. For him, memory and trauma rests in the land itself: as a farmer, it is the physical geography of that location that is wounded and broken by the events of that day.
There is also representation of physical and emotional trauma within the human body. Marina is the only character in Paradise Earth who was there at the massacre—who heard the gunshots and the screams. Her trauma looks more like the PTSD you might expect someone who has been through that experience to develop:
The next day, Marina wakes from a bad dream into the freezing morning with the urge to throw open a window and clear the air; as if she had burnt toast. The nightmares are as frequent as her regular dreams. Then there are the night terrors. Unlike nightmares, your eyes may be wide open but you never wake up during a night terror. (63)
Barker refrains from describing Marina’s nightmares in detail and instead offers simple, subtle explanations of the impact these things have on the woman and her mind, which is much more powerful than visceral, violent depictions of what she is experiencing. The imagery of burned toast needing to be cleared out of the room offers a compelling glimpse into Marina’s psyche.
Paradise Earth is not entirely focused on the past: there is consideration of how we, as humans, move through time, of what has come before us and who or what might come after.
They’ll leave candle wax and dream residue, the friction of real conversation and the scent of paint behind.
‘I wonder who is coming next,’ says Ruth. (217)
They leave nothing tangible. Instead, the marks Ruth and her partner Seamus leave are inherent to them. Barker is asking us to consider what marks we have made on the places we have been, how we might be remembered or noted in history, and how that might add to the narrative of a place or time.
Paradise Earth is an accomplished and powerful novel that expertly weaves together a real tragedy with an exploration of humanity’s role on earth. It is a novel that is gentle in narrative but bold in scope, and one that unearths deep questions about how the past can affect the present.
Jen is a writer, editor, podcast host and event moderator based in Brisbane. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. She previously worked for Fremantle Press and now teaches writing, journalism and publishing at Curtin University, where she’s also doing her PhD in creative writing.