Observation Journal: Notes on Kim Scott’s “Taboo”

Just some tiny trees

On these observation journal pages, I was thinking through Kim Scott’s novel Taboo (published by Picador in Australia and Small Beer Press in the USA). It’s a fabulous, distressing, gorgeous, angular, beautiful novel.

July 2020, and having difficulties remembering how to leave the house

I used the “five things to try/learn” template, which I usually call “five things to steal“, but in a novel dealing with the ongoing consequences of colonisation, theft, etc, that didn’t feel like the best word to use! I’d made notes on it as a reader elsewhere (and included it in this post on Tor.com: Six Stories for Fans of Beautiful Australian Gothic), but it is an intriguingly effective novel, and I wanted to learn from it on a writing level as well.

The basic structure of these types of pages is: list 5 things the work did that I want to understand, then quickly work out some ways I could apply those lessons to my own work.

These were the main points that struck me. Many of these overlap with the points and themes of the novel, but these notes were less about the experience of the book as a reader and more about the notable aspects of Scott’s writing, and how he made the book work.

  • The possibilities of point-of-view (see also By Whom and To Whom). There are some resonances between Taboo and Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, in particular (with varying degrees of subtlety) the use of plural points of view, the commentary and involvement it makes possible, and viewpoints that take a long view through time. Scott is doing something particular with this, of course, and in Taboo it also emphasises the present continuous nature of what is framed as history.
  • The porousness of time. This relates to the point above, and the subject matter of the novel. But it was also a reminder that it’s easy, when drawing or writing, to create an idealised and soulless present, and erase the textures of the past and the possibilities of the future. Probably a life lesson, too.
  • The handling of groups of people. Particularly groups it would be easy to write as “ill-assorted” or humorously at odds, or just background. There’s a shift of focus from the individual and it’s really interesting to see how Scott handles that.
  • A plot that circles around to the starting scene. The anticipation, the meaning, the shift of viewpoint, the scene as a thing to wonder towards, the ways a repeating scene works in a story that operates through time.
  • Landscape as more than backdrop. The book is about (among many other things) relationships to country, so this isn’t a surprise. On a writing level, the tactile interactions of the characters with the setting were striking in a way they perhaps shouldn’t be.

The main writerly impressions I took from the novel: porousness, translucency, a shift of focus from the individual.

I definitely recommend reading the book to find out more: Picador in Australia and Small Beer Press in the USA.


Read and Seen — July 2020

A test (themed for Envious Casca)

I’m testing different gold-and-sihouette techniques in the interests of catching up on my book posts. For this one I used black, white and (real) gold paint pens.


  • Slightly Foxed #66. This quarterly is going to cost me a lot of money.
  • Envious Casca — Georgette Heyer. I’m fascinated by the idea of country house murders as tragedies of manners.
  • The Blue Castle — LM Montgomery. I still love this sweet ridiculous book, and Valancy’s bid for happiness. (If you’ve read it, you might enjoy this live-tweet of Emily (@otherpens) reading it for the first time.
  • Taboo — Kim Scott (Picador in Australia, Small Beer Press in the USA). Luminous, unsettling, with a subtle approach to time. Stunning opening. If you’ve read The Mere Wife, I particularly recommend checking this out. (Not just if you’ve read The Mere Wife, obviously.)


  • The Lady Eve. (Not in a cinema, but as an arranged outing at least.) I do like old-fashioned screwball comedies (although I like them better at the caper-end of comedies of manners). This is charming but did not make nearly enough use of its snakes.