Requiem for a Beast: a work for image, word and music
Hachette Livre/Lothian Children’s Books, 2007.
Book and CD
Ages 12 - adult
Requiem for a Beast is a genre-busting work of startling imaginative power: a formal requiem expressing loss and grief across media and cultures. In four sections with Latin titles taken from the text of the Requiem (Dies Irae, Mors Stupebit et Natura, Lacrymosa, Pie Jesu), Matt Ottley tells the story of a nameless white Sydney, Australia, boy working in the outback as a novice stockman.
A terrifying bull menaces the boy and the adult stockmen. To the boy, the bull is the physical manifestation of his troubled dreams, haunted by a form-changing beast like the centaur or minotaur he learned about during a museum visit with his father. He has recently heard an aboriginal elder’s account of her incarceration as a member of the stolen generation.* He has also discovered that his father is plagued by the memory of witnessing long ago the murder of a young aboriginal boy whom he did nothing to save. The dream beast, readers realize, may also represent the complicated communal history of Australian injustice, guilt, remorse, and longing for redemption.
Ottley’s text begins “It’s our memories that make us. This country, these hills you see; this is my mother’s country, and her mother’s too.” The words convey the distinctive rhythms of aboriginal-inflected English. The accompanying CD is a composition integrating Ottley’s recordings of Bundjalung language songs and narrative with his lovely original Latin Requiem for sextet and soprano. Lyrics are printed at the back of the book along with author’s notes on the Bundjalung language and other reference sources.
This story of the boy’s courageous encounter with the bull unfolds through various textual and visual formats: third person narrative, hand printed journal-like entries, the aboriginal elder’s story in italics, a sans serif font for museum legends. Ottley’s oil paintings both illustrate the text and sometimes carry the story alone, graphic novel style. From idyllic outback landscapes and poignant depictions of aboriginal children to astonishingly energetic portraits of stockmen, horses and the beast, Ottley’s talent explodes from the page.
Requiem for a Beast became controversial in Australia after it was mistakenly placed with children’s picture books in a bookstore. Ensuing discussion has raised awareness of how the picture-book genre is growing to encompass young adult and adult literature. Ottley’s masterpiece of sensitive storytelling, painterly expertise, and musical imagination deserves a large international readership.
* The term “stolen generation” refers to Australian aboriginal children taken forcibly from their homes, raised in camps, and denied their language as part of official Australian government policy from 1909 to 1969. During this period, elders were not permitted to transmit their teachings to the next generation, and ancient aboriginal lineages were broken. In February 2008, Australia inaugurated an annual Sorry Day to acknowledge the tremendous wrongs done to Australian aboriginal peoples over centuries of white colonization.