Reviewed: Enclave, Claire G. Coleman, Hachette
Claire G. Coleman is anything but slow. Having published four books in five years, as well as contributing to short story and poetry anthologies, writing screenplays, and even featuring in a documentary, Coleman is aware of her profuse productivity: in an interview with the Australian Book Review, she acknowledged that she is ‘always … working on too much at once’. Like her other novels, her latest, Enclave,attempts to match this pace, but doesn’t quite keep up.
Enclave follows Christine, a 21-year-old white woman living with her wealthy family in a town filled with ‘off-beige houses’ and those like themselves. The town’s residents are fed misinformation about the world outside the town’s limits by a portal named Safetynet, and believe they are kept safe by an impassable wall and constant surveillance. As Christine becomes increasingly aware and self-conscious of being waited on by a staff of servants ‘all brown-skinned or darker’, a dalliance with a domestic helper, Sienna, leads to her banishment from what we learn is one of the titular enclaves, unimaginatively named Safetown.
This is where the running begins. Christine spends a short time in the wasteland outside Safetown’s walls before dashing mindlessly through the bush in hopes of finding a train so she can be reunited with Sienna. This focus on fleeing is a theme in Coleman’s other work, such as in Terra Nullius; she has explained that this kind of movement is designed to ‘hold the attention of the reader’, but Enclave’s prosaic repetition and unnatural dialogue do not take the reader anywhere. For example, Day 44 of Christine’s journey contains so much tripping and slipping—into holes and creeks; over vines and wire and scrub and wire and concrete and then, even more wire—that it’s tempting to check out before the chapter ends.
Positioning Enclave as a ‘powerful dystopian allegory’ excuses some of its narrative flaws and didactic language, which are typical of the form. The same cannot be said for the redundant phrasing peppered throughout Enclave: Christine describes walls as ‘a colour so nondescript that she knew she would not be able to describe it later’, and the simile ‘like water around a rock’ appears twice in one chapter. But these examples point more towards a lack of rigorous editing than writing ability, as elsewhere Coleman’s lyrical prowess shines:
After an eternity, they were on the surface, then they were in the sky, the train travelling on a viaduct over a treed, rocky coast. On one side, a vast rough sea; on the other side, a forested spur of hills and ridges.
Nevertheless, the characters of Enclave suffer from a lack of regard. Christine is thoughtlessly inconsistent, switching from ignorant to aware of her surroundings and back again in a matter of paragraphs. Servants are differentiated from the grotesquely similar women of Safetown in a way that renders them indistinguishable from each other: they are variously described as ‘handsome, bright-eyed’, with a ‘robust, powerful beauty’, and skin ‘the most gorgeous colour Chris[tine] had ever seen, a dark mahogany’. The allegorical nature of Enclave may explain this characterisation—the ugly homogeneity of the women of Safetown is exacerbated by the beauty of difference—but the reliance on two-dimensional depictions of Black and brown characters makes Enclave appeal to a certain kind of reader.
Coleman’s self-proclaimed audience for Terra Nullius was a ‘white Australia’ in whom she hoped to evoke an empathetic response to invasion. As Enclave is centredaround the emotional journey of a white protagonist emerging from her ‘economic and sociopolitical enclave’ and confronting her class and racial privilege, it’s easy to assume the intended audience is the same. Perhaps due to this gaze, and Coleman’s desire to change hearts and minds, the potential to explore greater nuance is extinguished.
Christine’s new home of Melbourne, once she reaches it, is described as ‘a fever dream of a civic heaven’ and ‘a type of utopia’, with its carbon-neutral status and perpetually happy residents of ‘every spectrum of skin colour’. But, at least for this reader, the setting evokes despair and a desire to ask: is this the best we can hope for? Do we find solace in a city carrying the coloniser’s name, where police still patrol, and Black and brown people work in servitude? And where does First Nations sovereignty sit in these surroundings? These do not necessarily have to be addressed by Enclave; however, the total absence of not only First Nations people but an interrogation of colonial power in its pages is disheartening. It stings to see a Wirlomin Noongar author replicate the settler erasure of our existence in pursuit of a bland allegory catering to those same settlers.
Enclave has a clear allegiance, from its dedication—For all our trans and queer sibs, you matter—through to its conclusion. Coleman doesn’t back down from this aspect of her position; here, her lack of concern with being ‘overtly didactic’ is laudable. Ideally, we could read a version of Enclave unrestrained by the pressures of full-time writing and the demographics of the book-buying public. If only we had nowhere to run to, and the time to think things through.