Why did I wait so long to get to Alex Miller’s beautiful, Miles Franklin Award-winning novel Journey to the Stone Country? Set in the famed ‘stone country’ of the interior of far north Queensland, Miller explores themes of possession, preservation, ancestral sins, redemption, love across racial boundaries, as well as Indigenous politics and reconciliation. He does this with the tender lyricism, earthy characters and delicate plotting that are the hallmarks of his stone country works. Journey possesses a sort of mystic gravitas that is hard to pin down, but is bound up in the rugged landscape and its Jangga people. It is a landscape not for the faint-hearted, and yet entering into it with Miller as your guide you feel completely safe, free to become as spellbound to its powers as its protagonists are.
Annabelle Beck, a university lecturer in Melbourne, is the grand-daughter of cattle station owners in far north Queensland. She returns home one day to find her husband Steven, also a university lecturer, has run off with one of his attractive honours students. She retreats to Townsville where she meets Bo Rennie while doing some work for her friend Sue in the area of Aboriginal cultural assessment.
The laconic, wise, chain-smoking Bo is the grandson of Grandma Rennie, a Murri Aboriginal woman who married Iain Rennie, a white stockman, even when such a marriage was outlawed by the ludicrously named ‘Protection Act’. Bo reminds ‘Annabellebeck’ they have met before—they used to swim naked as little kids in one of the old inland waterholes. He says to her he always thought she’d come back. She is intrigued by Bo and this cryptic message. Is he saying to her he has waited for her to come back? One of the delights of the novel’s progression is the way Annabelle has to throw off the part of herself that was raised and schooled to inquire into the reasons for everything.
Together they begin a journey that takes them through landscapes of their families’ joint pasts. They navigate the fractious relationships in modern Aboriginal politics and come to learn of past brutalities that threaten their growing bond. Bo seeks to recover Verbena Station, the land Grandma Rennie inherited when Iain died, which she was swindled out of by a white relation.
Grandma Rennie was ‘one of the last to give birth to up there in that stone country’. Bo educates Annabelle about this tough scrub country, which he and Dougald Gnapun used to muster cattle through as ‘boys’. Bo describes how Grandma took him and some other children into the stone country of the Old People when he was a boy:
And when Grandma seen that we was ready she rose from the fire and led us out of the silverleafed wattle into a great wide clearing. I’ll never forget it. And there was the labyrinth of stones lying there on the bare ground, polished by the wind and gleaming in the moonlight like rows of skulls laid out in a secret pattern. And we knew we was looking on our old people. We never spoke but stood and gazed on them ancient circles and paths and patterns on the ground and we seen it was the playground of life and death and we knew them old people was little children just like we was and they had gone on before us and left us their dreams and their sweet lives. Grandma never needed to say nothing to us about having something to live for. We seen it ourselves.
In one of their first joint work efforts, assessing country that a company wants to mine for coal, Annabelle finds a ‘cylcon’, a ‘cylindro-conical stone artefact of unknown purpose’, which she takes with her, but when she shows it to Dougald he almost recoils from it; he doesn’t know its original purpose or whether he should even be looking at it. Annabelle’s faux-pas stings her, makes her reassess her sense of the need to preserve artefacts. Indeed, one of many wonderful things in Journey is the way Annabelle realises there are some things in Indigenous culture she should not know.
When Bo invites her to go with him to the Stone Country of the Old People, she is wary. I love the way Miller handles this, both Bo’s invite, the way it meant he was offering her everything without declaring it overtly; the way she receives it with a ‘yes’ that sounded like a no. The subtlety is lovely.
Bo and Annabelle are shadowed by one of the most interesting secondary characters I’ve come across: Arner, Douglad’s son, who is almost Buddha-like, contemplative, someone with ‘the gift’ of being able to talk to the ‘Old People’. And yet he and his sister Trace often stay inside his ute, playing modern dance music with throbbing base at high volume, as if they don’t want any part of the landscape that is theirs by rights. He provides a wonderful counterpoint to Annabelle’s yearning for connection. (Trace provides a lovely counterpoint of her own as she finds an interesting and unexpected love match on their journey.)
I recall Kim Scott’s masterful Miles Franklin-winning novel That Deadman Dance (my review here) being described as a ‘post-reconciliation’ work, one that showed the terrible things of the past while offering an olive branch, a way forward. Of Noongar descent, Scott writes from a place of authority on the vexed issue of reconciliation. Miller is not Indigenous, and yet he too writes from a place of authority. He knows these people. In a way he is these people.
There are lovely touches throughout, such as the meta-fictional title for Annabelle’s husband’s conference paper – ‘Biography as Fiction’ – biography being the basis of much of Miller’s fiction.
And consider this for a sentence, Bo talking to one family of recent settlers about the old scrubber bulls eating poisonous zamia nuts and dying out in the scrub:
They laughed uneasily and reached for their tea, sipping from their mugs, picturing the doomed bull trapped among the tumbled rocks, the dingoes eating into his quivering flesh while he yet lived and suffered; a transformation scarcely to be imagined, a brutality that must surely leave its ghostly impress on this country, an imprint for them to encounter in their quest to live among these stony ridges and ravines of the escarpment, the history they must adopt if they were to prevail in this place.
There is a dual use of ‘zamia’: both poisonous nuts and the name of the street on which Annabelle’s parents’ house stands in Townsville. It’s a nice echo, and underpins the sort of poisonous thinking from one Indigenous elder Bo and Annabelle must overcome. Some relics, such as the stone cylcon deserve to be left to past times and past landscapes. Other things, such as the love Grandma Rennie shared with her husband Iain, should be resurrected.
Lovers of Miller’s Journey to the Stone Country must read its ‘cousin’, Landscape of Farewell, which also features Dougald Gnapun, this time in a central role. It is a fine work, covering similar themes from a slightly different angle, as is Miller’s more recent return to stone country territory in Coal Creek (my review here). Many things tie these novels together: mystical landscape, laconic characters and beautiful, thoughtful writing from one of our best. Journey to the Stone Country was worth the wait and then some.
Journey to the Stone Country by Alex Miller
Allen & Unwin