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Journey to the Stone Country by Alex MillerWhy 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

2002

Allen & Unwin

364 pages

ISBN: 978174141467

Source: purchased

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SWF 2014 logoI’m catching up with my SWF posts, starting with the one and only Alex Miller…

Poor Ashley Hay: expressing sympathy for Miller’s publisher Allen and Unwin, who no doubt wanted Miller to speak about Coal Creek (my review here) as much as she did(!), she opened up this session by announcing Miller had told her Coal Creek would be his last novel. When she asked him why he had made this decision, he began the first of several long and lovely stories…

We novelists have no idea what we’re doing, he said. Going on to echo Richard Flanagan’s similar thoughts, Miller said readers are the ones who tell you what you’ve done. He recently visited a women’s prison, where he spoke to a group of women – many inside for hardened crimes – who had formed a book club. He went to speak about Coal Creek. Many had read several (or all) of his novels, and one women said she had noted a powerful recurring theme in his work: the influence of the absent mother. Miller acknowledged that while this absence is true in the life of Bobby Blue, the hero of Coal Creek, Miller had no idea it was something his other novels had also addressed.

He went on to tell them about his earliest memory, of being 18 months old and whisked off to a children’s home in a taxi because his mum was about to give birth to his sister. His father was working so there was no one to look after Alex. He was in the home for one week or so, and it had obviously had a much larger impact on him that he could have imagined possible.

As he told the women this recollection he realised he was speaking with a group of absent mothers, and it hit him that their children were without their mother, for several years in some cases, and while he had lost his own mum for a week – and to an 18-month old that seemed forever – these mums were in a real sense absent from their children forever.

The women felt he had encapsulated an inner truth, that ‘a lifetime isn’t long enough to get over some things’. One asked him, ‘will I ever get over this (incarceration)?’ He realised she was asking him for a very considered response. ‘No,’ he told her, ‘but I believe you will transcend it.’

When he left the prison he thought about truth, how you write it. Suddenly it hit him, and he became quite emotional in the car, saying to himself ‘you’ve never thought about liberty, have you?’ It was, he said, time to be afraid of things again, to take on a new challenge. He started in that same moment: by deliberately taking the wrong road home, because ‘sometimes the wrong road is the right f**king road’. It was golden autumn evening, beautiful light falling through the gums that lined this unknown road. It was, he said, exhilarating. Even a dead fox on the road was a thing of beauty. He was enjoying the gift of freedom that these women had given him. He drove on knowing what he had to do, paying the women’s kindness to him forward – or perhaps backwards a little, for he now wants to pay tribute to those who have helped him throughout his life, such as his close friend Max Blatt. Friendship is an important part of his work, as is autobiographical details, but he decided to go in this new direction and highlight it further.

He then continued to subvert his publisher’s wishes(!) by recounting a rollicking story about his roller skating youth in London, which involved him trading his prized pair of roller skates for a book called Billy Bunter’s Omnibus. It was the most important book of his life, he said, and even though his family had scraped together the money to buy him those skates that he subsequently gave away, he impressed his father in the process, and a life-long love of books was founded. (This was in response to a question by Hay on the power of reading, and how reading affects Bobby Blue in Coal Creek!)

Landscape was also highlighted. The Stone Country is a place he cannot leave behind, he said. Taking glorious delight in his publishers’ angst, he finally referenced Coal Creek by saying it had taken him all of ten weeks to write, after which it was done. There was no research. It just spilled out of him. During those short weeks he felt as though he was under Bobby’s spell…. just as we, the audience, was under Miller’s during this very funny and moving session.

More from SWF2014 in the coming days…

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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)

 

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Wow, another great day at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.  Even the intermittent rain couldn’t dampen the spirits of the many attendees.  I went to three sessions today and thoroughly enjoyed each one. 

1. ‘First Nation Stories’ – undoubtedly the highlight of the day, with Canadian, Richard Van Camp, a member of the Dogrib Nation of Canada’s North West, and Boori Monty Prior, from North Queensland, moderated by Anita Heiss. 

Richard spoke first and it was soon clear that this was to be an interactive session!  He told us the story of how his people call the Northern Lights with whistling or rubbing of fingernails, and also how to ask them to go away with fingernails clipping the inside of one’s front teeth, and other methods besides.  He said the lights have a distinct smell (dead fish!) and also a distinct sound (like bacon sizzling in the next room!).  He told us that when he was young and people came around to his family;s house, his mother would say ‘Come, listen’ instead of ‘Go play’ – what a wonderful thing for a child!  He was thus trained to listen from the earliest age, not just to words but to the silence between them – silences which are just as important than the words themselves.  He told us about frogs (keepers of the rain: cue the first rain shower of the day!), saying, ‘where there are frogs there’s clean water.’  He told us about mosquitos – kill one & ten others turn up to his funeral! – a message of violence begets violence.  We heard also of the dragonfly secret he traded with a potter women in BC, and challenged us to remember all four lines, the last of which was ‘You need dragonfly wings for love.’ He also read his book Lullaby for Babies which a few years ago was given to every new baby’s family born in British Columbia.  It was a highly entertaining talk. 

Next up was Boori (whose name means ‘fire’).  He has worked for twenty years going around Australia and teaching aboriginal stories to school children and had some hilarious anecdotes of this journey.  He also backed up Richard’s point about how children are the great teachers.  He noted too that he believes stories are a way to save our country – we are far too keen to sell our native culture overseas and to overseas visitors, but how many of us non-indigenous Aussies know any people from this great culture?  Boori also briefly explored the immense family tragedies that he has had to grow up with, and it is a measure of the man – and the power of stories – that he has not only survived such trauma but has lifted the spirits of so many with his stories.  Indeed, the session itself was proof of the power of stories and story-tellers.  If you ever get a chance to see either of Richard or Boori speak, do yourself a favour and go – and take your children with you!  A great session.

2.  ‘Family Fictions’ – with readings from four female authors from their respective works that each deal with families, their foibles and secrets. 

Larissa Behrendt read from Legacy, a book whose inspiration came from the tension between the generations in an aboriginal middle-class family. 

Alison Booth then read from her well-known Stillwater Creek, set in 1957 and delving into family secrets in a rural town where it seems everyone knows everything about others, but people always carry secrets. 

Kate Veitch noted before her reading the incredible small number of men in the audience – true!  I thought I was the only one, but I think I counted two others! – and commented on how it is women who are the real backbone – not just of families, but of the book publishing industry too – well, that seemed to be true from the audience, but there are some men who read(!)  She noted that ‘everyone experiences families differently, even siblings in the same family – a real truism.  Kate then read quite a racy section from her work Trust. 

Last, but not least was Caroline Overington who had worked in journalism for many years and has written award-winning non-fiction before as well.  She read from her pyschological thriller Ghost Child, a fictionalised story based on based on a really terrible crime and the affect it had on a girl whose sibling was murdered by her mother and her partner, with the girl and another sibling forced to watch.  This occurred in NSW.  It is an unimaginable event.  The book is told in first-person from the point of view of its many cast members – an interesting way to get the varying angles of the girl’s life. 

3. ‘Reading Muster #5’ – with Nada Awar Jarrar, Peter Goldsworthy, Rodney Hall, and Alex Miller, all reading from their most recent work – another interesting session.  Nada read from her book which the moderator Melaine Ostell described as ‘a love letter to a city’ – that city being Beirut.  Her reading explored some of the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon. 

Next up was Peter Goldsworthy, who read a short story entitled The Nun’s Story, a riotously funny story about a boy being taught piano by a rather (at first) attractive nun.  The boy smuggles in Womens Weekly magazines to the nun from his mother.  Even the boy’s father fancies the nun, thinking ‘What a waste,’ as he drives the boy home from the lessons.  The story ends with the nun trying on her ‘bible’ black one piece swimsuit – it is all very funny and highly recommended.  Peter was asked about the length of his career (as all panelists were) and had some interesting points on the learning process that each piece of work brings, whether it is poetry, short story, novel, play and so on.  For him, the learning never stops, but each genre and format gives him something to take to the next project, and skills are transferable across formats. 

Rodney Hall then read from his first memoir.  Author of too many books to mention, including Miles Franklin Award winners Just Relations (1982) & The Grisly Wife (1994).  I was particularly interested to hear Rodney as Just Relations had been recommended to me an author on Sunday after a discussion on Siddon Rock by Glenda Guest which I finished a few days ago (see my Siddon Rock review).  Rodney’s memoir deals with fragments of memories he recalls from his childhood, and one of his two readings was from a bombing raid in WWII when he was a young child in England.  He also spoke about what is important to his writing, and that is the voice.  It is key.  He talked about how each of his (14 I think!) novels each have a distinctive voice – particularly the seven he has written in first person. 

Finally there was Alex Miller, who read from Lovesong, a worthy book on this year’s Miles Franklin shortlist .  What is immediately apparent about Lovesong is the sparse prose.  Indeed, what was apparent from each of the writers’ readings – and Peter Goldsworthy himself made this observation – was that there was not one superfluous word.  (This provided me with an interesting personal juxtaposition, given I’m reading Jose Saramago at present – a man for whom the narrative aside is like breathing!)  Alex read a section dealing with his gloomy protagonist father’s return from Venice, and another section.  There was a wonderful humour in the sombre man’s thoughts.  He said of his work, ‘it explores a moment, and when I’ve finished exploring the moment, that’s the end of the book.’

I had to steal away after this session, but there is plenty to look forward to over the weekend – except that usually benevolent Sydney sunshine, which seems likely to remain hidden behind plenty of rain.  I’m sure the crowds will continue to find their enthusiasm hardy whatever the elements. 

What are your SWF highlights?  Thoughts?  Let me know!

The D!

  

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Well, I’ve booked my programme of (ticketed) events for the Sydney Writers’ Festival (Saturday 15th of May – Sunday 23rd), though I still have a few choices to make for some (inevitable) overlaps.  For example: should I go to E32 ‘Who Owns the Story’ – dealing with the rights of authors in the use of aboriginal myth and dreaming stories, or E34: ‘Celebrating the Australian Accent’ with Jack Thompson et al?  For a Libran like myself, such decisions are nigh on impossible!

It’s certainly shaping up to be a busy and interesting week.  I’m not going to give a critical opinion on how the SWF measures up to, say, the recent Adelaide Writer’s Week, which had some pretty big names in Sarah Waters and others… Sydney will have to ‘make-do’ with the likes of Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame, Colm Toibin, and Peter Carey amongst a host of local talent too numerous to list.    

Some of the events I’m particularly looking forward to (amongst others) are:

  • E66: ‘Judges & Winners’: John Carey, Thomas Keneally, Colm Tóibín and Su Tong dissect the agony (and fun) of the Booker prize fight.  (This promises to be very intriguing – everyone has an opinion on the Booker Prize!).
  • Reading Muster 5: Alex Miller, Peter Goldsworthy, Rodney Hall and Nada Awar Jarrar pass the word around.
  • E148: ‘Marie Munkara’: The award-winning indigenous writer of ‘Every Secret Thing’ shares her stories.
  • E167: ‘Peter Carey’: Peter Carey talks to ‘Granta’ editor John Freeman about ‘Parrot and Olivier in America’.  (Carey is also delivering the festival’s closing address.) 
  • E192: ‘The Colony & Sydney Harbour’: Grace Karskens and Ian Hoskins retrace the history of Sydney.
  • E236: ‘Reading Roberto Bolano’: A celebration of the work of the late Chilean novelist and poet.  (Okay, so I’ve only read the (slim) Amulet – see my review which I liked a lot, but I am stalking both The Savage Detectives & 2666(!) – which are both on my shelf.  Perhaps I should start one of these before the festival!

Is anyone else going? What are the events you’re most interested in?

The Dilettante!

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