Judy Nunn is not afraid to turn the spotlight onto secrets in Australia’s past. In her new book Sanctuary, she uses her skills to highlight stories of the present which some would prefer to ignore or cloak in half-truths.
Nine ‘boat people’ are washed up on a remote island off the coast of Western Australia. They are from different backgrounds which are gradually revealed as the story moves from life on the island to their individual pasts.
What these survivors have in common is their trust in a notorious ‘people smuggler’ and the dismissive statements of agents when they had voiced their concerns about Australia’s ‘turn back the boats’ policy.
Rassen and Hala are a doctor and nurse with previous experience in London, who were forced to flee Aleppo; Massoud is a young Iranian activist; Jalila is a traumatised and silent young woman; Karim and Azra with their three year old son, Hamis are from Iraq, and the middle aged couple Hany and Sanaa are Coptic Christians from Egypt. Each of these people has their own terrible story.
Judy Nunn’s research into the background of just some of the people who seek refugee status in Australia is given a very human face in the lives of these fictional characters. But these people are not just symbols. Judy Numn’s skill is to have us see the individual person.
The island which is deserted of people has huts with supplies where the survivors of a sea voyage in a leaky boat find refuge. Tension in the story is quickly built as those from different backgrounds have to work together to survive. Tension also builds as it obvious they will be discovered but when and by whom, and what will happen to them.
They are given an extension of time when their discoverer is a local fisherman, Lou, himself a migrant of a previous wave of immigration to Australia.
The picture built of the small town of is an endearing one. Judy Nunn has a sharp eye for the idiosyncrasies of the local characters which she is able to describe in detail in just a few words. These range from the loud mouth in the pub, to the businesswoman with pretensions. The rhythms of country town life are captured surely. While people in the country town may be curious about others’ lives they are also accepting and tolerant of differences and individual behaviour.
There is a love story of a young couple which embodies hope for the future, and there are the less passionate but steady love stories of older couples.
Inevitably, the refugees are discovered by authorities. People behave with dignity and compassion.
Nunn leaves us with hope for the future lives of those who have sought sanctuary in Australia, but this reader can’t help finding the title ironic.
Judy Nunn has a large following and her readers will not be disappointed as she brings a wealth of characters in contemporary Australia to life.