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Coal Creek by Alex MillerCoal Creek sees Alex Miller, twice a winner of the Miles Franklin Award, return to his ‘stone country’ roots. Set mostly in the aftermath of WWII, it’s the story of Bobby Blue (Blewit), told in a distinctive first person voice that is suffused with the simple yet wise lyricism of the people of the scrub country that comprises the Queensland ranges inland from Townsville.

Uneducated, innocent and warm-hearted, Bobby works as a stockman with his father until his father dies (his loving mother having died earlier), at which point Bobby, aged 20, gets a job working as a deputy offsider to Mount Hay’s new policeman, Daniel Collins.

Collins is an educated man who served in New Guinea during the war. He has moved up from the coast with his wife Esme and their two girls, Irie and Miriam. He does not understand the people of the ranges, nor its country. He has brought with him books on geology, as if they might offer a way of comprehending this unfamiliar landscape. But its secrets will not come to him that way. When Bobby is out riding with him, Bobby ‘soon seen he never knew he was being watched. I knew from that he was not the man for that country.’ Bobby thinks his father would have taken one look at Collins and walked the other way.

Daniel puts the locals offside, and Esme’s ‘high morals’ prove problematic. She has very strong ideas on how Daniel should police, and her suffocating parenting alienates her daughters (they start to go off into the unforgiving scrubs to get away from her).

Bobby’s lifelong friend is Ben, a volatile man who lives out by Coal Creek with Deeds, an Aboriginal girl in her mid-teens. Bobby and Ben grew up together, the pair of them going out with their fathers and working for the stockholders in the region. Bobby holds a strong plutonic love for Ben. And “Love is faith. It does you good to have it, but it usually has a price to it.” If it all comes down to it, Bobby knows he will be on Ben’s side.

Bobby is looking back on events and regularly foreshadows some sort of trouble to come. ‘I did not expect things to work out the way they did’, he writes, and thinks this of his dead mother’s gift of foresight thus: “… I seen that far-off knowing look in her eyes. Which she only had for me, like she sensed the terrible thing that was to happen lying out there waiting in the path of my future…” She tells him: ‘We all hang on the cross, Bobby Blue.’

Bobby had a loving and close relationship with his mother, and a deep respect of his father who could always see trouble coming and who didn’t suffer fools. Bobby suffers Daniel and Esme because of his friendship with Irie. Going on thirteen, she teaches Bobby how to read and a strong bond is formed between them, a bond that proves disastrous. He doesn’t see anything untoward in his relationship with her. He says he will wait for her to ‘come into her womanhood’. Not surprisingly, her parents think otherwise, and things spiral out of control for the lot of them as suspicions turn into mistrust and misunderstanding.

Miller evokes the landscape beautifully. It underpins every passage, and Bobby’s love of it is pervasive:

…them long rolling ridges of scrub, one after the other as far as the eye can see, going on into the haze of the day like a dream till you forget where you are. Just played-out mining and poor scrub country, that is all it is, fit only for them half-wild cattle and that was all the good it ever was. My country. I have no other.

It is tough country, a place where clouds run elsewhere. It is the country of the Old People, the local Murri Aborigines:

Them Old People knows things we whitefellers can never know. They are the dust of them worn-down mountains themselves and the knowledge is in them like the marrow of their souls. Which it will never be in us.

One can’t help but feel as though some of that dust has gotten under the skin of Miller too, for the landscape he so lovingly paints seems an inseparable part of him.

Coal Creek delves into the nature of friendship amidst competing loyalties; it’s about betrayal and how love endures. It shows us yet again how suspicion breeds misunderstanding. It is a wise hymn to the stone country and the Old People. Winner of the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Prize for Fiction, it is a very satisfying read.

Miller will talk about Coal Creek at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, and I’ve already got my ticket.

Coal Creek by Alex Miller

2013

Text

291 pages

ISBN: 9781743316986

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

 

A Girl is a Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBrideA Girl is a Half-formed Thing is stylistically unlike anything I have read. An uncompromising coming of age tale, it is told in truncated sentences that cut like a sharpened blade (and proved quite the jolt after reading the luscious prose of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby!).

It is the story of an unnamed Irish girl growing up in a dysfunctional family, with a troubled mother (‘Mammy’) who maintains an obsessive devotion to the rituals and rites of Catholicism; a brother who had brain cancer when our narrator was very young and is compromised both mentally and physically because of the surgery required to remove the tumour; and a malevolent and predatory uncle, to whom she loses her virginity at the tender age of thirteen. The father left when she was two, perhaps earlier.

The relationship with her brother is the only pure love she has in her life, but as in all sibling relationships, troubles loom as she grows up and feels herself leaving him behind.

It is a challenging read, certainly at first. Here is the open:

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

Even in these opening lines, it is clear something is wrong in her life. This is the voice of the girl as a two-year old, but even as she grows and becomes an adult, the prose remains in this unsettled state. Don’t be put off. I soon got used to it. There is a remarkable musicality in sections, particularly with the dialogue, which sits subsumed within paragraphs a little like the dialogue of a Jose Saramago work, only cut-up.

It’s not all doom and gloom. There are some wonderful moments of levity. Like any two year old with an independent streak (she is ‘boldness incarnate’), our narrator gleefully escapes the bath her mother has run:

I’ll jump the bath when she has me. Running with my headful of shampoo shouting no Mammy no no no. Cold chest where water hits windscreen belly in the rain. Down those stairs as fast as I can. Shampoo on my forehead. In my eyes. Nettling them. Mammy. Yelling Lady you come back or you’ll get what for.

And when crotchety Grandpa visits, he chastises the girl’s mother for letting her do forward rolls in a skirt. ‘It’s disgusting. It’s perverted. Underwear on display. What kind of carry-on is that? How is she supposed to be a child of Mary?’

Her estranged father dies of a stroke when she is thirteen, and Mammy and the two children move to a new home, a new school. Life is difficult. She doesn’t fit in at all. The boys bully her brother, and she often fails to intervene, giving rise to guilt - that most Catholic of weights, which is ever-present.

Water is a recurring motif, from the bath escape as a toddler right to the end, underlining the need (hope?) for a baptismal cleansing of the soul to which our narrator clings. It is even there, albeit obliquely, when her visiting uncle takes advantage of the impure thoughts she has about him: ‘He kisses me. The deep again.’ She goes on to think he tasted like ‘something deep’ too. The morning after the kiss she goes off and ‘falls’ deliberately into the nearby lake. On her return she meets her uncle in the kitchen, still soaking wet, while the others are asleep, and what follows is breathtaking, as the uncle has intercourse with her. As they begin:

That’s a thrill of me. That I am. Feeling running rivers over me. Running falls. I’m splashing falling into it. His cheek on my head. His dark hair. That I am warm in this. Full up. True. Here we are. Here we are. We eventually are here. Go let myself down in this.

It was only on reflection that I wondered whether the ‘we’ referred to here is her and her brother rather than her and her uncle; that is, the hopeless happiness she feels here is something that reminds her of the times she and her brother used to swim as kids, when ‘my feet are silver kicking through the frozen clouds beneath us’, times where she was whole, happy, pure. It’s difficult to tell. But she definitely returns to water throughout, and the release it offers from something too painful for her to carry.

The kitchen scene is not the most shocking in the book. Discovering a dark power in her detached sexuality, she gives herself to pretty much every boy and man she comes across, both in school and then in college, developing a taste for masochism as she loses her grip on what it means to be whole. She is the ‘half-formed thing’ of the title. At one point she contemplates telling us her name, but keeps it to herself; she has so little faith in people she cannot even trust us with that.

Later scenes with her uncle left me gobsmacked. Not even Jesus can save her: ‘If Jesus was here he’d have gone. Running. Screaming with his sandals all flapping in through the cow shit.’ What is gripping about these passages is the stifling compression the fragmented prose creates. Some passages left me feeling almost winded. And the moment her brother apologises to her and Mammy for something he feels guilty about is absolutely heartbreaking.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is writing at its most powerful. The story elements are not particularly new, but the package matches Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs (my review) for intensity. It’s a one-off, and should be celebrated.

McBride is appearing at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) (www.swf.org.au for details). I can’t wait to hear what she has to say about her journey to publishing this firecracker of a novel.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

2013

Text

262 pages

ISBN: 9781922182234

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

Mr Wigg by Inga SimpsonConfession time… I have a thing for pears. And so while I’ve read many fabulous Aussie debut novels over Christmas, such as Graeme Simsion’s chuckle fest The Rosie Project, Hannah Kent’s finely wrought Burial Rites, and Courtney Collins’s captivating gothic work The Burial, I thought I’d skip reviewing these given the weight of press each has received, and write up some thoughts on the charming Mr Wigg by Inga Simpson. This is in part because Mr Wigg has a thing for pears too, although he also has a fancy for, let me see, just about every kind of fruiting tree you can think of, from apricots to nectarines, from persimmons to quinces. His speciality, though, is peaches.

Set in 1971, the story is split into the four seasons, starting with summer. The narrative voice has a whimsical storybook quality to it, partly because Mr Wigg is always referred to as ‘Mr Wigg’, and partly because he tells his grandchildren Lachlan and Fiona a fable about the mythical Peach King while the three of them bake, which, it has to be said, is often. I must admit, the voice took a bit of getting used to. Like its country setting, the story comes to you slowly, simply. But once I got used to the rhythm, it seemed perfect to me. It’s a bit like us city folk needing to adjust to a rural pace whenever we get out of the big smoke.

The whimsy comes in the form of the fruit trees, who talk to Mr Wigg and each other. Here’s some of the pears in action:

The pears had always been sensitive during spring, as they were not self-fertile, like the others, but required cross pollination. ‘It’s no laughing matter,’ Bon Chrétien muttered. Bickering like a long-married couple most of the year, the pears began dipping their branches at each other in early September. Beurré Bosc recited sonnets in that particular tone and Bon Chrétien responded with made up songs about the qualities of pear blossom.

Mr Wigg has his challenges. He lost his wife to cancer the previous year and is still coming to terms with the loss. His son wants him to consider moving into a old person’s home in town. And Mr Wigg is estranged from his daughter after a falling out over an inheritance. He knows he’s getting on, but he’s determined to die in his own home. He thus fights for his independence. To prove he’s not past it, in between baking sessions with the grandkids he takes on a creative project, firing up the forge in the shed with touching results that bring together Mr Wigg’s Peach King tale and his own life story. The ending is pitch-perfect.

Mr Wigg is a little gem. A story with heart. Reading it awwbadge_2014makes you want to plant an orchard, preserve some fruit, and get baking while the cricket is playing on the radio (Mr Wigg would be very proud of our Aussie boys thrashing the poms in the Ashes these past weeks!). It makes you thankful for the little things, the slow things, the moments between you and those you love. And being reminded of these things is never a bad thing.

To top it all off, I even learned a few new things about pears!

Mr Wigg by Inga Simpson

2013

Hachette

292 pages

ISBN: 9780733630194

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

The Great Unknown edited by Angela Meyer‘Tis the season for gifts and stocking fillers and short story collections, and you could do a lot worse than wrap up a copy of The Great Unknown, edited by Melbourne writer and blogger Angela Meyer. As many of you would know, Angela has blogged for Crikey and now calls Literary Minded home. She has hosted several sessions at major literary festivals, too, including the Sydney Writers’ Festival. I’ve read nearly all the stories in the collection, and thought I’d get something up on the blog for those of you looking for last-minute gift ideas for the readers in your life (and that includes you!)

Inspired by strange events, the macabre, bizarre, fantastical and chilling, there are many disturbing ‘delights’. Some should come with a warning not to read before bedtime. I made that mistake with Krissy Kneen’s haunting ‘Sleepwalk’, which sets the tone for the collection. In it, Brendan is concerned over his partner Emily’s nascent sleepwalking. A photographer by trade, Emily has dug out her old film camera and is stealthily pacing through their rooms in the wee small hours, taking photos of their creaking house aimlessly. Or is she? When they develop the photos there seems to be something in them:

He saw their life, or pieces of it in each of the prints, the lamp, the edge of their couch and here, a blur of grey behind it. The same blur, movement? Something too fast for the speed of the shutter? This same pale smear repeated in each of the hanging squares. And then the final image. He peered into it through her magnifying glass … The dining room near the portrait of Emily as a child. The figure was a blur, but clearer here, shoulders, arms, the crouch of legs.  

Cue another night of sleepwalking and a stomach clenching climax!

Another disturbing story is ‘The Koala Motel’ by Rhys Tate, a completely spooky tale about a missing boy and abandoned motel on a remote country road. Ron had pulled up at it because he hears a noise underneath his car:

That’s when I heard the crying. It was soft at first, but over the course of about two minutes, it grew louder, like it was moving towards me. This thin, high-pitched sobbing from someone upset. Many some sort of animal? I stood there for a while, trying to work out the source, because the crying was bouncing off the motel’s walls and coming in from every bloody angle.

The resolution is chilling, to say the least. The next time I hear a noise under my car, I’ll have goose bumps for sure!

There are several stories that deal with missing people, and strange disappearances, including ‘Her Dress was a Pale Shimmer’ by Marion Halligan. It sees Annabel, a young woman, trying to come to terms with the disappearance of her mother a year ago. Strange things happen when she goes to an impromptu dinner at a local restaurant with her Goth sister and her distant philosopher father. This is one of those stories that illumines the human condition (even if it is by the fluttering tea lights that sit on the restaurant’s table), what it means to yearn for an explanation to a deep and anguished mystery and find the answer to be every bit as mysterious. Lovely.

Speaking of philosophers, Melbourne philosopher Damon Young’s ‘Árt’ is a perfectly dark tale of erotic obsession. It sees an ex-artist, now art lecturer, grapple with a mysterious girl he calls ‘K’, who he meets at a Kubin exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. There he sees a work in ink that is not listed in the catalogue, an erotic picture in which his face appears painted into a rock. How it got onto the wall and why he is in it are questions I’ll leave for you to discover the answer to, but suffice to say this one packs a punch!

One of the highlights of the collection is undoubtedly ‘A Cure’ by Alexander Cothren. Set in a futuristic Manhattan, in the offices of Empathy International, whose slick advertisements ask consumers ‘Have you been feeling less?’ and come with the enticing by-line ‘Feel again’. Alice has come hoping for a cure for her ‘compassion fatigue’. Empathy is trialling an update to the ‘MindFi’ system, and Alice is desperate to try it. Exploring the issue of misery as entertainment, it is such a clever and taut story, brimming with poignancy, and leaves you with a searing question, one that lingers.

Beyond that, there are wonderful stories by Carmel Bird, Susan Yardley, Paddy O’Reilly, Ryan O’Neil, and… I could go on, but I’ll leave it there… except to say, as a fan of great book design, I dip my lid to Michael Vale for his thoughtful cover design, which features the head of a black swan; a ‘black swan event’ is something outside of our existing comprehension, or beyond the realm of expectations, and is thus surprising or shocking; and is thus a perfect image for such a collection.

It’s a perfect accompaniment to languid days by the pool or on the beach, or a spooky after dinner read. I’m off to finish it now, this time with the light on!

To all my readers, a very joyous Christmas and many blessings to you and yours in 2014.

 

Lisa over at ANZ Litlovers took a peek at and enjoyed a couple of the collection’s other stories too. Click here for her thoughts.

The Great Unknown edited by Angela Meyer

2013

Spineless Wonders

177 pages

ISBN: 9780987447937

Source: review copy provided by Spineless Wonders

The luminaries by Eleanor CattonWinner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is a wonder. It succeeds as both a conceptual work, based on astrological signs and charts, and a thrilling set of mysteries, all of which are interrelated.

Set in the mid-1860s gold rush in New Zealand, the story commences with Scot Walter Moody arriving into Hokitika on the western coast, seeking to make his fortune in the nearby goldfields. On the night of his arrival he stumbles into a gathering of twelve men in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel. The men are from various backgrounds and classes, and Moody slowly comes to see they are all there for some kind of council.

They have come to discuss a series of unsolved crimes that, to an outsider, they might seem involved with. A successful young digger has disappeared. A whore has attempted to take her own life. And a hapless hermit who is fond of drink has been found dead in his cottage, surrounded by a fortune. Moody himself has a tale to tell, too, for he has witnessed something—an apparition of some kind?—on his stormy voyage into Hokitika that has shaken him to the core. He recalls the scene thus:

What had he been thinking of? Only the cravat, the silver hand, that name, gasped out of the darkness. The scene was like a small world, Moody thought, possessed of its own dimensions. Any amount of ordinary time could pass, when his mind was straying there. There was this large world of rolling time and shifting spaces, and that small, stilled world of horror and unease; they fit inside each other, a sphere within a sphere.

Each of the twelve assembled men has their own astrological sign. The shipping agent Thomas Balfour, for instance, is Sagittarius. The Maori greenstone hunter Te Rau Tauwhare is Aries. Each of their personalities is set down in accordance to their sign, and their actions are likewise governed by the position of the planets and other astrological influences on the days of the key events. (Other characters are linked to planets, with related influences; Moody’s influence is reason. The dead man, Crosbie Wells, is Terra Firma.)

The story is divided into twelve Parts, each of which is preceded by a chart to show the position of the planetary influences in the various astrological signs. For instance, in Part One, set on 27 January 1866, we have Mercury, Mars and Jupiter in Sagittarius (Balfour’s sign). And it is Balfour who first engages with Moody and begins to tell him some of the story.

Each Part has a set of chapters, and each chapter has a quaint introduction, which start with the words ‘In which’. The first chapter is entitled ‘Mercury in Sagittarius’ and is described thus: ‘In which a stranger arrives in Hokitika; a secret council is disturbed; Walter Moody conceals his most recent memory; and Thomas Balfour begins to tell a story.’

The first Part is 360 pages long, a page for each degree of a circle, ‘a sphere within a sphere’. Subsequent Parts gradually reduce in length, like the waning of a moon, until the chapters are no more than a page long. Meanwhile, the introductions to each chapter become, in the latter Parts at least, longer, waxing as we near the conclusion.

The danger with high-concept novels, as Catton herself acknowledges, is that they risk becoming slaves to the concept and fall down on the level of pure story. The more elaborate the scaffolding, the higher the risk. But story does not suffer in The Luminaries. You could ignore all of the astrological elements and enjoy the story as it stands and as it is written, with some of the well-established Victorian tropes, such as opium dens, a fallen woman/whore, and séances and the supernatural. The prose is assured, and written in classic Victorian style too, from flamboyant character names and descriptions right down to the missing letters in the word ‘d—ned’.

It’s a real page turner, with judicious revelations of relationships and past actions that have contributed to the three events the council has come to discuss. There are lies, deceits, tricks, intrigues, conspiracies, conmen, mix-ups, espionage, rumours, revenge, secrets, promises made and broken, murder, adultery, blackmail, and strange coincidences. And there is, buried in the many revolving tales, the love story of two soul mates. Best of all, it’s fun to read.

Catton manages the panoply of characters with their interwoven pasts with aplomb. They are not stereotypes, but rather have the depth, complexity and contradictions of us all. They have almost Dickensian names: there’s Reverend Devlin, a mercantile ship owner named Carver. And Catton delves deeply into each of them, their physical descriptions, mannerisms, foibles and outlook.

There are interesting themes at play: greed and exploitation; many kinds of love (familial, of a companion, of a lover); honour. There is also the question of whether we have free will or act in accordance to some higher, preordained influence. Perhaps it is both, for the omniscient narrator, in explaining a shift from Aquarius to Pisces, observes ‘were of our own making, and we shall be our own end.’

Exploring the theme of greed, there is a lovely exchange between Te Rau Tauwhare and one of the gold diggers who believes gold and the Maori’s greenstone could be interchangeable: why do we seek gold and not greenstone, one mineral and not the other? No, replies Tauwhare, they are not the same. And we know this because Catton has established the special meaning of greenstone to the Maori people. (Catton also shows Tauwhare’s pain and bitterness when he thinks of the £300 his people were paid for all their land, and the theft it equates to given all the gold in its soil and rivers.)

There’s fun to be hand along the way. Take Mannering’s comment after Balfour’s tale of why the twelve men are gathered for their council comes to a conclusion 350 pages into the novel: ‘A little more than [Moody] bargained for, perhaps.’  How droll!

There are also some lovely touches that reinforce the structural theme. Balfour asks Tauwhare for the meaning of the word Hokitika in Maori. Tauwhare struggles to put it into words, but “at last [he] lifted his finger and described a circle in the air. … ‘Understand it like this,’ he said, regretting that he had to speak the words in English, and approximate the noun. ‘Around. And then back again, beginning.’” It is a beautiful underlining of the structure of the novel itself, which wanes like a moon until it is new again, reaching the start of the story at its end. Beautiful. And one of the main gold claims in the story is called the ‘Aurora’, which is a word for dawn.

The Luminaries is the sort of novel perhaps only David Mitchell would have attempted, and maybe not even him. There will be theses and PhDs written on it. At 832 pages it is the longest to win the Booker, but don’t be put off by the length. At the end, although I was completely satisfied, I hoping there might be more. All I can do now is sit back and admire the waxing of a major literary talent.

And as a fan of great book and cover design work, I dip me lid to the cover design, by Jenny Grigg, which is terrific. And kudos to Granta for publishing such an ambitious work.

Read it, and let me know what you think.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

2013

Granta

832 pages

ISBN: 9781847088765

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased, rather appropriately in this instance, from Megalong Books in Leura!)

All the birds singing by Evie WyldSomething, or someone, is chasing Jake Whyte, hounding her, haunting her. When we meet her she’s living on a remote farm on an unnamed UK island, her only company a dog named Dog and a herd of sheep. A loner, her only interaction with the locals is gained at the shop or with the one neighbour she speaks to, an older man named Don. She is also an outsider, having come from the equally remote Australian north (Darwin, Port Hedland, Marble Bar, and before that Queensland).

Told in first person, the story opens with the horrible death of one of her sheep:

Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew into the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that. I shoved my boot into Dog’s face to stop him from taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed.

I love the way Wyld uses the bird call/singing motif throughout the story. More on that later, but note the lovely use of the word ‘wheeled’ here, which is usually used in describing a bird’s flight, how Wyld attaches it to Jake instead, how birds are almost a part of her. This is important because while the sheep are being picked off by some creature or person unknown, Jake is fleeing from something else too, some unspeakable event in her past that has scarred her both physically and mentally.

Wyld grew up in rural New South Wales but has spent her adult life in the UK and identifies as British. Earlier this year she was part of the fourth Granta list of 20 Best British Writers under 40. She won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for her fabulous debut After the fire a still small voice, which I read recently (not reviewed here). After the fire used a split narrative to good effect in a story that focussed on successive generations of men from the same Australian family, two of whom had been scarred by the horrors of war. There was a palpable sense of loss and pain in that work, and they are again in evidence here, in spades, along with another split narrative, albeit one with a different flavour. (There is another, more subtle link between the two books, but to tell would spoil things for you!)

All the birds, singing flits back and forth, chapter by chapter, between the present in the UK and Jake’s troubled past in Australia. What’s unique about the chapters set in Australia is that they are presented in reverse chronological order. The book’s second chapter is Jake as a shearer on a remote station in the Kimberly region of north-west Australia, and ends with her wanting to escape, fearing that whatever is chasing her has found her. Subsequent Australian chapters travel back toward adolescence, with horrors mounting toward the unspeakable event from which she is running. The structure is beautifully conceived and impressively executed.

Meanwhile, back in the present, another loner enters Jake’s life. He is Lloyd, who is travelling to the four corners of the UK in order to distribute the ashes of someone or something that was dear to him. Of course, Jake wants to get rid of him, but events conspire to prevent this. Together they are forced to confront both present and past.

When you take on a structure like this you need to be in full control and Wyld is precisely that. Her prose is precise; nothing is wasted. The way she works together details of past and present, all the subtle touch-points, is marvellous. One example is the way Jake always picks out the birds she sees, together with their calls (or silences); they are present from the opening paragraph; and these calls gradually build into the event in her past that caused them all the sing together.

There’s some lovely wordplay; at one point Jake hears someone say ‘carry-on’, but although she hears it correctly, she instantly thinks of ‘carrion’. It’s not wordplay for the sake of it—it serves to reinforce the bird motif and the theme of death/loss all in one go. It’s wonderful writing, beautiful ‘craft’.

Wyld knows how to write pain and loss. She also knows her characters intimately. Their voices are utterly believable, from the rough and ready Aussie shearers, the terrifying old Otto, all the way through to the well-educated but somewhat uncertain Lloyd. Jake’s voice is finely honed; it (almost imperceptibly) changes from adult to teenager the further back in time we travel.

The troubled relationship Jake has with her family is deftly constructed and provides a further unsettling tone. We wonder throughout why her sister Iris can’t abide Jake, and why Jake hasn’t called home in so long she’s unaware of her father’s death in an unspecified ‘accident’ at his place of work. The climax packs a real punch, but it’s deepened when you finish and think back on some of these minor things, which are thrown into a new light.

Wyld captures the landscapes beautifully, and smells both good and bad are a real feature of her writing. The difference between the UK’s cold, bleak hills to baking hot north-west Australia with all its flies and deadly animals is stark:

Wet wool and rain-dampened sheep shit were aliens to the dust-dry smell of the carpet sheep in their wide red spaces back home. The land [in the UK]… seemed to be watching me, feeling my foreignness in it, holding its breath…

The vast difference highlights the length to which Jake has gone to outrun the past. And I love the way Wyld uses Jake’s outsider status to further show her sense of unease about the thing that might be watching her, preying on her sheep.

And what about the birds? I love birds—and I love the way Wyld uses them, (and by them I mean: crows, blackbirds, currawongs, ‘white’ galahs, butcher birds, magpies, seagulls, a barn owl, merlin, curlew, whistler, starlings and sparrows!). As I write this muse dusk is flaring in Sydney on a perfectly blue spring day where the temperature nudged 29° C; the sun is dipping into the Blue Mountains in a showy molten mass, and the magpies are singing to each other. (Soon the kookaburras will start up.)

In Wyld’s novel, the birds feature in ways that highlight the mood of the scene. There are the crows after carrion in the disturbing open, Jake and her one-time boyfriend gabbling like magpies in a scene of solidarity and warmth, butcher birds calling as a phone line goes dead, a drilling nightjar causing nightmares, an unknown bird ‘cry[ing] in the night … like a fire horn’ when Jake feels trapped, and a barn owl flying over the lonely UK farm: ‘break[ing] up the dawn, a lone swimmer in an empty sea’. At other times there are no birds singing at all, replaced instead by harrowing dead birds, like a kookaburra, honeyeater and bowerbird. (And yep, my kookaburras here are calling out now!) Each of Wyld’s birds plays a part, and I love the way she evokes human words and thoughts in some of their calls, further underscoring their relationship with Jake. It’s another highlight.

All that’s left for me to say, in a week where the Man Booker announced it’s going global in 2014 (sigh), All the birds, singing is a contender for next year’s prize no matter what it comes up against. Granta had it right. Get thee to a bookstore and buy it!

All the birds, singing by Evie Wyld

2013

Vintage

229 pages

ISBN: 9781742757308

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased!)

True Country by Kim ScottPart of the joy of discovering authors later in their career is the ability to go back and read their earliest work. In doing so you get a different perspective on the writer-to-be, what intrigues them, drives them; what tools they like to use in framing their narratives; their ethos. After greatly admiring Kim Scott’s Miles Franklin-winning That Deadman Dance (my review) I had this opportunity with his evocative debut True Country, read for Indigenous Literature Week (hosted by Lisa Hill at ANZ Litlovers — a list of all the reviews submitted by readers for ILW can be found here.)

Scott’s themes include Aboriginal culture, landscape, displacement, belonging, home. His tone mixes despair and hope. We see the narrative traits of later works here too, such as fragmented structuring, and shifting voices and perspectives. Though fictional, True Country is very autobiographical, as is common with many debut novels. It commences with Billy arriving into Karnama, a (fictional) remote Kimberly Aboriginal community, by airplane with his wife Liz. He’s coming to teach at the local school. He’s also searching for something in himself, though we’re not sure of what this is until near the end of the novel’s first section (at one-third distance).

This first chapter, of only two pages, is written in an intriguing second person. Here’s the opening lines:

You might stay that way, maybe forever, with no world to belong to and belong to you. You in your many high places, looking over looking over, waiting for a sign. You’re nearly ready, nearly there.

You’re trying to read a flat pattern, like the sea, the land from high above. Or you might see your shadow falling upon this page. And maybe that’s all you’ll see and understand.

Or you might drift in. Fall or dive in. Enter.

Wind drift, rain fall, river rush. The air, the sea all around. And the storming.

You alight on higher ground, gather, sing. It may be.

You listen to me. We’re gunna make a story, true story. You might find it’s here you belong. A place like this.

The narrator here is the collective voice of the landscape and its people, speaking to Billy as he arrives into this place on his plane. Note the delightful duality in the words  ‘your many high places’, how they cover both the manner of his arrival and the notion that, as a man from the big smoke, he might carry an elevated view of himself, as perhaps do we, us readers who are also entering this landscape as outsiders. And there is also the lovely sense of us diving beyond our shadows on the page and into the story alongside Billy, a notion that books can change us, a forerunner of the lovely passage in That Deadman Dance that highlights the same sense of diving into a book and coming up out of it changed.

After the beautiful use of the single-word sentence ‘Enter’, we get a sense of what might happen to Billy if he does dive in, if he enters fully into the landscape. He will be subjected to elemental forces of a unique and lasting landscape, one that (‘it may be’) changes him, giving him a sense of the belonging he seeks.

Apart from the occasional use of what I’ll call the communal voice, much of the novel’s first section is told by Billy in first person. It reinforces the notion of him as an outsider, separate from the people he finds himself living amongst.

And what of this place? This, too, from the opening page:

And it is a beautiful place, this place. Call it our country, our country all ‘round here. We got river, we got sea. Got creek, rock, hill, waterfall. We got bush tucker: apple, potato, sugarbag, bush turkey, kangaroo, barramundi, dugong, turtle … every kind. Sweet mango and coconut too.  

As he lands, the chapter ends on another short sentence: ‘Welcome to you.’ What we have is an invitation, to Billy, to us as well in a way.

But although it’s a beautiful landscape, Karnama is not a perfect community, oh no. It’s not long before Billy and Liz hear and witness some of its many intractable problems, such as alcohol abuse, gambling, petrol sniffing, lack of parental care, violence (particularly against women, but also women against other women), as well as a general malaise, loss of culture and fading observance of Law. Each morning Billy has to round up the children for school.

Faced with all the problems, Billy wants to do something. Fatima, one of the older Aboriginal women, offers to tell him stories about the ‘old ways’, to record them so he can transcribe them for permanent record. He also wants to tell them to the children in class, so their culture is not lost.

Fatima was the first born on the Mission. She and another girl were later tricked by the Missionaries into getting on a boat that took them to a school far away from home. They didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to their families, and only returned as grownups. By that stage ‘we didn’t know how to speak the language. … We talk in English.’

Fatima also speaks of breakdowns in the cultural norms of the community, such as which women are allowed to be with which men.

It’s only in looking back on the events he is narrating that Billy sees how inept he was at being a listener. He and Fatima talk about the community’s history as set down by the Missionaries. In the Mission’s journals is an account of Fatima’s birth, how it was troublesome for her mother, how her mother applied some ‘old way’ care to get her through. The journal entry makes Fatima weep. She’d not heard it before.

There is a lovely truth there, but elsewhere the journals can’t be trusted. When Fatima begins to tell him another story, about the shooting of an Aborigine, he is so bound up in finding the original account in the Missionary’s journal he doesn’t listen to Fatima’s version of the story, which, troublingly, diverges from the official one. It’s only much later, when he listens back to the tape that he realises his error. He writes, ‘It’s a bad recording. They all were. There’s a loud rumbling in the background in all of them.’

This is lovely writing. The rumbling is more than a poor recording. It’s the thundering of a people wanting to be heard. All the more reason, we think, to get the true stories recorded. So they can indeed be heard. But even here, as the summer wet season’s downpours commence, Billy is struggling to find the time to transcribe the recordings. Throughout this first part of the book there are hints about Billy’s own background, with his slightly darker shade of skin, the way he can dance like the elders. Is he part Aboriginal himself, we wonder.

He tapes some of the old men too. These stories are inserted within the narrative, without introduction. Some readers might feel jolted by this, maybe even a little lost. This is a criticism of Scott’s later writing too, but one I don’t share myself. I think he shows us how in matching the narrative form to the story, a writer elevates their work, shows their craft. The elder voices want to be heard. They are thrust into the rest of the narrative and we must listen. The sense of dislocation is important.

And what great stories men like Sebastian tell Billy! About the old black magic. Of men who can fly, make themselves invisible. However, the magic has been lost. He laments, ‘Some of the young people start not believing. Then they do anything, have nothing.’

The younger generation don’t have it easy, and Scott deftly has Billy note the reaction to Sebastian’s worries from one of the younger women, Gabriella. She has been to Melbourne to attend university, and is back in the community on holidays. She is lifting herself up as we non-Indigenous might say, as she herself might say. Her jaw clenches at Sebastian’s comments. Does she have nothing? Like Billy she is now part outsider.

Poor Gabriella! She feels her displacement keenly:

…each time she came back to Karnama after a time away she was happy, because she missed the people and the country so much. But she was sad too. … it was like going backwards sometimes, and even further backwards each time she met up with old friends. The bridging courses she did at uni didn’t connect these two worlds. So it seemed. So she said. 

This is one of the pitfalls current Aborigines face. I have heard experiences of Aboriginal people who have left country communities as the first to go to university, and have been ostracised because of it. They are getting too big for their boots, is the criticism levelled at them when they return. (Of course, this problem is not confined to Aborigines.)

We hear Sebastian, but we also see Gabriella. A few pages later we see why she might clench her jaw, for she is one of the ones who does see the magic. She helps in the school, teaching painting, and talks about her love of it to Billy and Liz thus:

‘I like it… At uni too, I can do painting. It’s like this. I get sucked in, and I forget time and where I am. You know, one day I might paint me a little island, a little place for me to live in there. Fly down into it, just go off the end of my brush, and stay there, eh?’

It’s a wonderful echo of Billy’s own challenge of not seeing the community from above, of getting beyond his shadow on the page and diving into it.

And Gabriella is one of the success stories. What’s particularly troubling are the children who neither believe the old magic nor want to become educated like her. If only their inability to write their own names was the sole problem. They are sniffing petrol, wearing ‘bracelets made from the rubber sealing rings of opened fuel drums’. They are tellingly said to be not drinking, ‘yet’. They are the ones who observe their father’s violence toward his wives and say he is teaching her a good lesson. ‘Tiny children threw rocks through windows, and knives at teachers who follow them home hurling feeble reprimands.’ What hope is there for them? 

In discussing the Mission’s old journals Gabriella asks Billy why he has come to Karnama. His spluttering response tells us what we have suspected, that he is seeking to find part of his own Aboriginality, trying to discover what it means to him. (Like Scott, Billy is Noongar (spelt Nyungar in this 1993 novel)). He replies:

‘Because I wanted to. I think I wanted, I’m of… my grandmother… My great grandmother must have been Aboriginal, like you, dark. My grandmother is part … my father told me, but no one…’ … ‘So, maybe that’s a part. But I don’t feel Aboriginal, I can’t say that. I don’t understand. Does it mean you feel lost, displaced? But doesn’t everyone? And I just wanted to come to a place like this, where some things that happened a long time ago, where I come from, that I have only heard of or read of, are still happening here, maybe.’

The first section of the novel ends with Billy receiving the terrible news that his part-Aboriginal grandmother has died. There’s no chance to ask her all the questions he’d been building towards. Now all he can do is help Gabriella, who suggests they try to rediscover the old ways, ‘Put the little bits together. … there’s something there, that’s what I reckon. Should we try to put it all together and believe in it?’

The first section ends in the communal voice thus:

So Billy is doing it with us now, and Gabriella too. We might be all writing together, really.

This signals a shift. Entering the second section, we lose the first person narration and have both a third-person omniscient communal narrator and  occasional first-person elder stories. The shift is significant. We lose some things here, which I’ll come to later, but again it’s Scott marrying form to story. Billy has admitted his Aboriginal roots, and is now part of something. It’s appropriate to relinquish the first-person narration and move into a more encompassing voice. The move also allows Scott to include discussions between characters when Billy is not in present, such as when Liz talks to another white woman about the community’s problems.

The challenge for Billy after acknowledging his roots, is that although he finds himself more and more part of things, he still is searching for the secret of what it means to be part Aboriginal. And faced with so many social problems, can he find the old magic? How can he when even the supposed accomplishment of the community in performing corroboree dances to tourists ends mostly in disarray and disaster? How can he when one of the children he teaches is murdered by a white man who escapes punishment under the white man’s law? It’s tempting to say Scott offers no solutions, but perhaps in Billy’s search for the old ways there is an answer, or an approach to try at least.

It is a measure of Scott’s even-handedness that Billy sees all the horrors but also experiences many joys, like swimming in rushing rivers with the kids, seeing manta rays leaping out of the water when fishing, and a hundred other things. There is despair here, but also great joy, great life. This is the wet season:

We’d sit inside, looking out the windows at the afternoon rain, the red mud and the intense green, the thin bodies of semi-naked children skimming and spraying through the puddles and sheets of water, their black skins glistening and their cries thin in the thunder. The coconut palms and mango trees in our yard writhed against a great sky split by lightning. And the solid rain, and the clearing of the air just before darkness. …

What perhaps is lacking somewhat is an exploration between Billy and Liz of what it all means to him, and what effect, if any, finding himself has upon them. In moving from the first person to omniscient, we lose a little of the close connection to Billy’s view of things, and the potential to explore the relationship with his wife in this way.

ANZ Litlovers Indigenous Literature WeekTrue Country is twenty years old. But it feels fresh, both in the story sense, with the disturbing lack of progress in Aboriginal health and the loss of culture and Law to mention just a couple of problems, and also in a stylistic sense, with the edgy use of various and shifting narrative voices. There’s a timelessness in the Kimberley, and the same thing is present in Scott’s voice. The ideas and themes and style that characterise his later work are there from the start. (There’s even a little hint of whaling.) Long may he speak for himself, his people, and all Australians.

True Country by Kim Scott

1993

Fremantle Press

299 pages

ISBN: 9781921361524

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased!)

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