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The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard FlanaganRichard Flanagan’s powerful The Narrow Road to the Deep North is in many ways an immense achievement. It took some twelve years to write, during which time he tried a number of different forms for the story, realising each time he had failed, before he settled on the one that appears in the published novel. It was a very personal journey, because his father was one of Weary Dunlop’s POWs on the Thai-Burma Death Railway. For Flanagan, this was a book he always knew he would write. It was the advancing age of his father that finally got it finished; his father survived the war (as well as the cholera he had during his internment), passing away at the age of nearly 99 just after Flanagan had told him he had given the manuscript to his publishers. That this man passed with such poetic timing should perhaps come as no surprise because poetry is one of the foundation stones upon which this fine novel is built.

The title of the novel is the same as haiku master Basho’s epic haibun, and each of the five sections of chapters is proceeded by an epigrammatic haiku that reflects the chapters to come. And those chapters are the prose equivalent of haiku, compact things that generally run for no more than four or so pages, many shorter. Like haiku, they contain multitudes of understanding, depicting human nature at its most loving, needy, compassionate and diabolical.

The story centres on the deeply flawed but magnetic Dorrigo Evans, a Tasmanian surgeon, although it fans out to encompass the experiences of other captives as well as their captors, both during their time building ‘the Line’ and after the war. I suspect another author would have told the story of the many solely through one central character’s experience, but Flanagan chooses to branch out beyond the story of Dorrigo. Some readers might find this a little discombobulating, others will appreciate the linking of disparate lives on both sides of the war with the themes of poetry, survival, and what it means to love.

The story opens with Dorrigo as a boy, growing up in Tasmania, his earliest memory of a light-filled church hall. Already we have hints of salvation and its twin: suffering. We also have poetry, for Dorrigo grows up as a bookish lad, and often quotes from Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’:

My purpose holds,

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars until I die.’

Like Odysseus, Dorrigo will be held captive in a distant land, unable to return to the woman he loves.

The narrative structure is fractured, which seems an apt approach given the way war fractures the lives of its participants and their families. Although generally progressing from Dorrigo’s childhood to old age, there are numerous time slips, with Flanagan taking us forward and back to key moments. One of the early moves is forward, to Dorrigo with his lover Amy, where we get an early reference to Basho’s haibun. Dorrigo recites ‘Ulysses’ to her as he looks ‘to where, beyond the weathered French doors with their flaking white paint, the moonlight formed a narrow road on the sea …’. It’s a perfect image, and deeply resonant, for that is the road he must travel.

I mentioned survival above, and it is one of the great underlying themes of the novel. As a younger man, Dorrigo goes to the mainland, to Melbourne University, where he studies medicine. Surrounded by the elite, he finds that while he loves his family, he is not proud of them. Their ‘principal achievement was survival. It would take him a lifetime to appreciate what an achievement that was.’

For all his flaws, Dorrigo is at his best as the commanding officer of the POWs in the camp. At one point, when desperately hungry, he’s presented with a (contraband) steak by the cook, and although his mouth is flooding with saliva, he refuses to eat it, telling the man to feed it to the sick men in the hospital. He laments the way he is failing his men, as a doctor and a leader. His love for them is absolute.

There are some wonderful characters amongst Dorrigo’s men, including the artist Rabbit Hendricks, Lizard Brancussi, Jimmy Bigelow, Jack Rainbow, the outcast Rooster MacNeice, and Darky Gardener aka the ‘Black Prince’, a man who could got things by trading the black market, even when he’s on the Line.

The horrors are endless, gut-wrenching. Dorrigo ‘persuaded, cajoled and insisted on the officers working, as the ceaseless green horror pressed every harder on their scabies-ridden bodies and groggy guts, on their fevered heads and foul, ulcerated legs, on their perennially shitting arses.’ And these were the officers – the rest suffer even more.

When these horrors have been indelibly inked into our minds, Dorrigo is faced with an impossible dilemma, forced to choose one hundred emaciated souls to march one hundred miles through the jungle to another camp, knowing most will die along the way. Does he send the very sick, or ‘just’ the sick? It’s heartbreaking stuff.

It is here Flanagan does something brave: he makes the leap into the Japanese mindset as an attempt to understand how men can treat other men with such barbarity. We see into the lives of two Japanese commanders, the amphetamine-addicted Nakamura and his evil superior Colonel Kota. To them, the POWs are less than men, had they been Japanese they would have killed themselves because of the shame of being captured. Their purpose now is to serve the Emperor.

It is not just Dorrigo who is placed in impossible situations. Nakamura is placed in one by Kota, who demands more be done in less time. Despite Kota rebuffing Nakamura’s entreaties for more men and machinery, the two bond over Japan’s great destiny, and also over the haiku that reflects the Japanese spirit:

They grew sentimental as they talked of the earthy wisdom of Issa’s haiku, the greatness of Buson, the wonder of Basho’s great haibun, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which, Colonel Kota said, summed up in one book the genius of the Japanese spirit.

In lesser hands, the post-war tracing of the captors could have been a mistake. In Flanagan’s hands we get to see the great weight carried by survivors and perpetrators, as well as more disturbing truths, such as that of one Japanese engineer-cum-guard, who says the time he had spent building the railway was the happiest of his life. Such is human nature, sadly.

But it’s not all about the war. It’s also about love in all its guises, be it the love Dorrigo has for his men, the men who he believes he is failing, and the love that burns between Dorrigo and Amy. It also explores love’s darker obsessiveness, ownership, the lies people tell out of spite.

The second section of chapters starts with a haiku from Issa:

From that woman

on the beach, dusk pours out

across the evening waves.

For Dorrigo, everything pours out of Amy, light, love, a hopeless inviolable need. It is a lovely linking of Amy and the waves that carry the narrow road of moonlight across the seas that are calling him. Held while he waits to be shipped off to war, their affair is brief but all consuming.

They meet by chance in Adelaide in late 1940 at a book store (where Max Harris is launching Angry Penguins!). They are instantly, magnetically, attracted to each other. The meeting is brief, a few minutes of talking about poetry (and penguins), with no names exchanged. But he meets her again at his uncle Keith’s pub. For yes, Amy is married to Dorrigo’s uncle, many years her senior. And while nothing happened in this next meeting, ‘everything had changed.’

The same is true for Amy. She seems to seek oblivion in it, in them. For her, love ‘is not goodness, and nor is it happiness. … It was the universe touching, exploding within one human being, and that person exploding into the universe. It was annihilation, the destroyer of worlds.”

In an interview with Philip Adams, Flanagan said we intone ‘lest we forget’, but we do forget, and quickly. As a counter to this, there are two indelible truths I hold after reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North. First, the novel is an unforgettable testament to Weary Dunlop’s men and the other countless thousands who lost their lives in the name of the Emperor’s madness. The second is, while built, the railway was soon swallowed by the jungle, whereas the poetry of Basho lives on hundreds of years after his death. As Dorrigo learns, survival is the incredible achievement. (I’ve already dusted off my Basho and dived back into the world of haiku.) Ah, if only there were more poets and fewer warmongers. If only there were more Richard Flanagans.

The only lingering doubt is whether the story could have been even more powerful had it possessed a tighter focus on the one POW rather than fanning out as it does. Some will like it, some will have misgivings. I suspect that as much as Flanagan tried to write a fictional character who was not his father, he could not help but explore how war affects all its participants, not just its famous leaders. In some ways they all travelled on that narrow road together.

It’s hard to believe he has not won the Miles Franklin Award. While Alexis Wright would also be a worthy winner for The Swan Book (my review), this just might be his year.

Flanagan is appearing at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, which starts next week. I’ve got my ticket, so expect some additional musings on The Narrow Road over the coming weeks. You can also listen to that discussion between Flanagan and Philip Adams here (about 52 minutes from memory, and well worth it).

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

2013

Vintage

467 pages

ISBN: 9781741666700

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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The Swan Book by Alexis WrightWell! What to say about Alexis Wright’s teeming The Swan Book? How about some history? While reading a little (more) about Sydney’s early colonial history recently, I learned black swans lived in and around Sydney waterways, including Sydney Harbour, when the English landed in 1788. Journals written at that time spoke of twenty to thirty black swans flying regularly over Sydney Cove until, presumably, they were shot for food or, in some cases, sent back to England as natural curiosities. Swans were also seen in numbers in both coastal and inland lagoons, as well as along the Hawkesbury-Nepean River at foot of the Blue Mountains.

Sadly, you won’t see them in these places today; you need to go west of the ranges to find any. It is a reminder that the natural imbalance for Aboriginal people is no future dystopia at all—things have been out of whack for over two hundred years already, since the first settlement at Sydney Cove. Driven out of their natural habitats, it was the Sydney Cove swans I pictured when reading about the giant flock that follows the protagonist Oblivia around in wildly imaginative The Swan Book.

And what a wild ride itis! The ‘story’, such as it is, is centred on Oblivia, a mute young woman pulled out of the hollow of a tree after being gang-raped by a group of Aboriginal ‘boys’ who are high on the sniffing of petrol and glue. It is no coincidence she cannot speak; she is another Aboriginal voice silenced. It is Bella Donna of the Champions, the European climate-change refugee (‘invader’), who finds her. Together they live on a rusty old hulk located in the swamp that was once a lake in the far north of Australia. The army has control, and Aborigines have been rounded up and moved in.

This post climate change dystopia is a disturbing future world in which weather events are wild and about-face. Cities are prone to flooding; cyclones regularly occur at southern latitudes; in short, the old balance has been thrown out, and there’s no doubt who is at fault:

Now the day had come when modern man had become the new face of God, and simply sacrificed the whole Earth.

Bella Donna brings to Oblivia stories of European swans, and soon a flock of black swans arrive at the swamp and become Oblivia’s totem. They follow her south when she is taken by the flashy Warren Finch, the half-caste Aboriginal ‘saviour’ who has risen to become the vice-President of the Republic of Australia, and who needs a wife to take the step up to President. He grew up in the nearby Brolga Nation, and Oblivia is his promised wife. As soon as they depart south, he has her homeland swamp demolished.

Bella Donna also brought the story of her voyage from European wastelands, comparing it to Icarus’s flight. Icarus’s feathers melted because he did not heed the warnings of his father. And this ‘dreaming’ is a forewarning of what is to come in The Swan Book, the sense of people not listening to their elders. In describing myna birds, Wright laments:

From a safe distance, you could hear these birds swearing at the grass in throwback words of the traditional language for the country that was no longer spoken by any living human being on the Earth. … You had to hear these sooth-saying creatures creating glimpses of a new internationally dimensional language about global warming and changing climates for this land. Really listen hard to what they were saying.

The myna birds spew up some English that ‘you would have heard used to try to defeat lies in this part of the world. Just short words like Not true.

There is a loose electricity in Wright’s story-telling, fusing styles, tenses, high and low registers, first and third-person points-of-view with varying degrees of ‘closeness’, left-field similes/metaphors, and numerous references to swans from other works. And it’s all underpinned by the Aboriginal belief system. Here’s an example:

Somebody had eye-witnessed the lake bubbling from tug boats mix-mastering the water with their propellers, whisking it like a spritzer and putrefying all the dead ancient things rising to the surface, spraying it around like the smell of eternity. No wonder the local people, the traditional owners and all that, were too frightened to go back to the lake anymore. They had heard stories – bad stories about what happened to anyone who went back there.

For the most part this energy is infectious, although I was occasionally somewhat bemused/lost, particularly in the overly long opening chapter (70-odd pages), in which I sometimes felt like a mouse spinning in the loop of Wright’s wheel but not going anywhere. Maybe this was maybe intentional on her part; maybe faced with the so-called greatest moral challenge of our time we are all, at the moment, spinning our wheels. In any event, after this chapter, when Warren Finch appears on the scene, the prose gains traction, repetition dissolves, and the bight of Wright’s razor-sharp teeth digs in.

It is a very political book. Wright skewers all sorts, such as the canaries repeating what they hear on talk-balk radio, and the many policies and practices aimed at ‘improving’ Aborigines. The ‘closing the gap’ mantra is given short-shrift, as is the policy of intervention in remote Aboriginal communities, and ‘moving forward’ as part of Aboriginal empowerment. The satire at times is very black, the rage seething. Although necessary, it is uncomfortable. Rich non-Indigenous Australians  learn ‘about poverty by not being poor themselves’, and are oppressors ‘capable of slipping down to the bottom of a fetid well to destroy whoever got in the way of their success.’

Wright also points to difficulty of singling out one Aboriginal person to speak for all Aboriginal peoples. This is what she says of Bella Donna’s arrival into the swamp land:

… she came to live out her last days among the poorest people in a rich land. … Another Eden. A place where hunger and death were commonplace to its elders, the landowners who knew that they were a social-science experiment with a very big cemetery. A small place where sometimes things got so bad when the swamp’s little gang of brain-damaged, toxic-fume-sniffing addicted kids ruled, that parents asked only for one moment of peace. … People were … gambling about the Messiah. … Messiahs come and go, usually in the form of academic researchers, or a few chosen blacks and one-hit wonders pretending to speak for Aboriginal people and sucking-dry government money bureaucrats.

I love the way Wright inserts traditional language words into the text when we’re in the swamp, but removes them when we get to the southern city, as if it has no place there. And how could it when buildings reach into the sky like giant fingers ‘that had come out of the ground to orchestrate the heavens’? Indeed, so out of place does Oblivia feel that when she sees people lay on the concrete paths with their ears to the ground, she assumes they are listening for the stories underneath, but they are actually listening for the tidal surges coming in through the sewer system below the city.

For all this, there are moments of great humour (the fitting of Oblivia’s wedding dress is a hoot), and great beauty, even in the swamp, where a crescent moon’s light ‘rode silver saddles on the backs of hundreds of black swans huddling around the hull with necks tucked under their wings…’

The sense of the magical is never far away. At one point Oblivia ‘thought that she was in the sky, flying, … she and the swans were caught in the winds of a ghost net dragged forward by the spirits of the country.’  Elsewhere, the ‘Harbour Master’, a larger-than-life guru of the swamp, comes and goes like a ghost. There is a lot of talk about ghosts in the novel, about spirits. Some people have used the term ‘Aboriginal Realism’ rather than ‘Magical Realism’ to describe Wright’s style, because they feel the former reflects the realism inherent in Aboriginal belief systems. While that is true, saying Magical Realism lacks grounding in reality misunderstands its use of magic in much the same way. Nevertheless, I quite like Aboriginal Realism as a term. It feels right (perhaps Wright?) to describe Wright’s story telling.

In statistics a ‘black swan event’ is something so outside our experience or comprehension it is impossible to believe (and therefore predict). The terms was coined for the surprise of finding black swans in New Holland (Australia) by the Dutch, an event depicted in the novel, because it was assumed prior to that that all swans must be white. (As a fan of the Sydney Swans AFL team, I’ve always found it curious the team’s swan is white rather than black. And yes, I know our colours are red and white, but this is an Australian team not an English one, and I’d very much like to see a black swan appear on the team’s outfits in future. It’s perhaps a measure of how European views persist. Maybe I should start a petition!)

Anyway, what is of no surprise, and in no way a black swan event, is The Swan Book. We shouldawwbadge_2014 have expected such a thing to spring from the mind of one of our very best story tellers. Possessing old wisdom, and rife with global resonance, it may well see Wright add a second Miles Franklin Award to her list of accolades. I just wish some of those old-soul black swans could once again fly over the sparkling waters of Sydney Harbour (and maybe roost on the Swannies’ jersey!). Both would be a welcome sight.

Alexis Wright is appearing at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF). The talk she is giving on The Swan Book is free, so I better get there early!

If you would like to read more erudite thoughts on The Swan Book than mine, see Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers, and Jane Gleeson-White’s at the Sydney Review of Books.

The Swan Book by Alexis Wright

2013

Giramondo

334 pages

ISBN: 9781922146410

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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A muse on tonight’s talk at the State Library of NSW entitled ‘Sleeping Beauties’, featuring Jane Gleeson-White and Geordie Williamson. Presented in conjunction with the Stella Literary Prize, there was a lively discussion of several Australian women authors who deserve a wider audience for their work. There couldn’t be two better-placed people to discuss the topic than Jane, blogger at Bookish Girl and author of the very accessible Australian Classics (see my review here), and Geordie, chief literary critic at The Australian and author of the recently published The Burning Library.

Jane aptly started off proceedings by declaring 2012 the year of the woman writer in Australia, with so many awards won by the likes of Anna Funder and Gillian Mears (see my review of Foal’s Bread here). The subsequent discussion touched on the issues of the imbalance of women-to-men in publication and reviewing statistics, and how even some of the published women’s stories in the twentieth century were edited by men for a particular assumed audience, during which the essence or flow had been excised and the story sadly depleted. As a bit of an idealist, I just find this sort of bias mind-bending and terribly sad. Anyway, we soon dived into a discussion of the following authors and their works:

  • Barbara Baynton: short stories, particularly, as Jane noted, the ‘chilling’ The Broken Vessel.
  • Judith Wright: how her second intimate poetry collection ‘Woman to Man’ was not published because it was considered ‘too obstetric’.
  • M Barnard Eldershaw: this was one of Geordie’s picks… or should I say two? -for, as Geordie explained, MBE was actually two women: Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw. Both highly intelligent, Geordie explained the cruel curtailing of Barnard’s dreams of taking up a place she won at Oxford by her father. She said, ‘Life is backed up in me for miles and miles’, such a heart-rending expression. Their novel A House is Built was discussed. Set in 1830s Sydney, it is the story of a successful early merchant – and sounds just up my street – expect a review of this soon(ish!). Other works include Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. Geordie described how these women authors worked within the masculine rule book of publication, but did so with a very feminine focus as well as a subversive (and therefore much more interesting) streak. They were hugely influential on a certain Patrick White, too. And it wasn’t just their fiction, for they also wrote a lot of critical work, including reviews of the young Christina Stead. Marjorie Barnard went on to write solo; her works include The Persimmon Tree and Other Stories.
  • Henry Handel Richardson: Jane commented that HHR’s Maurice Guest is perhaps her favourite novel by an Australian author (to which she quickly added Voss and Carpentaria!). Her debut novel, it is, in Jane’s words, an ‘overblown, passionate, Wagnerian story. Set in Leipzig, it centres on a love triangle, with poor Maurice the hapless dupe who’s in love with the gifted music student, Louise Dufrayer. For Jane, it shines every bit if not more than HHR’s more recognised ‘Australian’ works The Getting of Wisdom and The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.
  • Christina Stead: Geordie said the neglect shown to HHR’s Maurice Guest applies to all of Christina Stead’s work – cue much nodding of knowledgeable heads in the audience! Jonathan Franzen is not the first to acknowledge Stead as one of the great twentieth century novelists, said Geordie. Many other critics and authors have said much the same thing. Yet still Stead sits in the shadows: she sold 199-odd books in 2008 and was only taught in one Australian University. Why? Is it because of her ‘intelligent ferocity’ an approach she had to life and to writing? Is it because ‘we like our modernism light and our Booker Prize novels well edited? Jane agreed that Stead can be difficult, admitting it had taken her a few attempts to get through The Man who Loved Children, but now adores her. Other titles of Stead’s mentioned included For Love Alone and The Salzburg Tales, a book of short stories.
  • Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poetry, and how the Indigenous voices are starting to pick up the stories written in our landscape, by writers such as Alexis Wright (see my review of Carpentaria here) and Kim Scott (see my review of That Deadman Dance here).
  • Amy Witting: the first Aussie to sell two stories to The New Yorker, a writer whom Barry Oakley called ‘the Australian Chekhov’, and yet she is not even mentioned in the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian authors and her works are all out of print. Her works include I for Isobel, which Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers has reviewed here.
  • Exiles at Home by Drusilla Modjeska was also mentioned as a great way into this world of neglected Australian female authors.

An hour well spent!

It was a shame there weren’t more literature lovers in the audience this evening. I hope there’s a similar session at next year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, as the topic deserves as wide an audience as the female writers discussed.

In the meantime, there’s so many Australian women authors demanding my attention, it’s hard to know where to start…

Happy reading…

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Well!  I was enjoying Carpentaria so much I extended Indigenous Literature Week to ten days!

I’m a fan of big, sprawling, unruly books, even more so if they have elements of magic realism (Midnight’s Children, Illywhacker anyone?) – and Alexis Wright’s Miles Franklin-winner is one of those books.  Set in the coastal town of Desperance, it’s a story about the indigenous Phantom family, headed by Norm, who live in the Westend of Pricklebush, and their running battles with both the Eastend mob, led by Joseph Midnight, as well as the white fella inhabitants of Uptown and operators of the Gurfurrit mine.  As you can no-doubt tell, Wright has a lot of fun with wordplay.  The names are a case in point, beginning with the town in which the story is set: the wonderfully named Desperance in the Gulf of Carpentaria, on the western coast of far north Queensland.

There is indeed a sense of desperation that underpins the story, with the constant threat of cyclones in the west season; the social breakdown that undermines some indigenous families; the racist Uptowners’ beatings and murders of indigenous people, including children; the fight (by some but not all) against the multi-national mine; and the in-fighting between different the Westend and Eastend aboriginal groups, who are disputing the ownership of Native Title rights for the land and sea around Desperance, (this battle having been going on for longer than white settlement).  The uneasy relationship between indigenous culture and Christianity is also present, with numerous references to biblical stories and themes.

Part of the book’s power is the sheer energy of the narrative voice.  Told in the (increasingly rare?) omniscient narrator, with numerous time loops and disconnected strands, Carpentaria is a force of nature as strong as the Gulf’s winds.  Although in some ways it reminded me of Rodney Hall’s equally wild Miles Franklin-winner Just Relations (my review), there is a sense that the way the story is told could only have been realised by an indigenous author.  It is dripping with symbolism and myth.  Dreams slip into reality and vice-versa.  A particular brand of humour is never far away, either.  Early in the story the town council debate whether to erect a “giant something” in the middle of town, like “the world’s biggest stubby [beer bottle], or the world’s biggest drunk”, or even a giant miner with a pick-axe!

There is a veritable carousel of characters, both indigenous and non-indigenous.  There is the enigmatic Angel Day, once wife of Normal (Norm) Phantom, who left him for the religious zealot Mozzie Fishman, a man with whom the community has an edgy relationship.  Fishman has a strange convoy of followers that comes and goes with him “in a red cloud of mystery”, often spending years at a time away from Desperance, “their convey contin[uing] an ancient religious crusade along the spiritual travelling road of the great ancestor, whose journey continues to span the entire continent and is older than time itself”.  Will Phantom, returned with Fishman after some time way, has been disowned by Norm for reasons that are unclear in the early part of the book but which form part of the backbone of the story.  There is also the mysterious Elias Smith, who arrives from the sea and has a mystical relationship with groper fish.  Elias becomes Norm’s friend, but although the town welcome him at first, he is eventually driven out of the town, returning to the sea in much the same way he came from it, but not before the mining company’s men have their way with him.  Then there are the anglo Uptown folk, like the local cop, Constable Truthful, and the blunt and violent mayor, Bruiser.  There are, for all the obvious factions in Desperance, some peculiar, in some cases disturbing relationships between some of the characters – the exploitive relationship between Truthful and Girlie Normal is a case in point.

The other character in the book is the setting.  A place of maddening winds and humidity so thick it “was a plain old sticky syrup falling through the atmosphere like a curse”, Desperance is seared into my brain.  It’s a country in which “legends and ghosts live side by side”.  It is also the sea, and the magic that lies therein.  When Elias makes his stunning entrance the scene is set thus:

Once upon a time, not even so long ago, while voyaging in the blackest of midnights, a strong sea man, who was a wizard of many oceans, had his memory stolen by thieving sea monsters hissing spindrift and spume as they sped away across the tops of stormy waves grown taller than the trees.

This also gives a sense of the magic realism utilised by Wright.  One of the more lyrical aspects of the story, though small, is the wonderful relationship the local hotelier, Lloydie, has with the mermaid sea spirit who is locked in the wood of the bar behind which he serves (and on which he sleeps at night).  There are also many Dreamtime–magic realism ‘fusion’ moments.  Norm stuffs dead fish and paints them in his workshop, a place in which the spirits of dead people speak to him.  There’s another sublime and moving scene in which Norm returns Elias’s body to the sea, guided by the big gropers with which Elias had a special bond.  And there’s another moving scene set in a cave in which three aboriginal children are laid to rest after being murdered while in police custody.

Most of the characters are deeply flawed.  The indigenous–non-indigenous divide is powerfully realised.  When Constable Truthful threatens Mozzie, for instance, his response is unequivocal:

‘You will die one day,’ the policeman warned, wagging his finger at Mozzie.  ‘You will know,’ Mozzie repeated, with a mocking sputter of spit, a little choking, and then silence.

But problems within the indigenous community are not papered over, either.  There is nothing magical about the three children’s demise.  Abandoned by parents and left to their own devices, they become petrol-sniffing addicts.  It’s a powerful indictment of the social breakdown on all sides which leads to this tragedy in the real world.  In a macabre twist, while the kids are in jail, the Uptowners are more concerned with their hens laying good eggs than why there are three children in custody.

The establishment of the Gurfurrit mine changes the town irrevocably:

Desperance had become a boom town with a more sophisticated outlook now, because it belonged totally to the big mine.  When the mine came along with its big equipment, big ideas, big dollars from the bank – Well!  Why not?  Every bit of Uptown humanity went for it – lock, stock and barrel.  The mine bought off the lot of them, including those dogs over Eastside.  They would be getting their just deserts, Westside told those traitors who ran down to the mine crawling on their stomachs for a job.   

But it’s not just the Eastsiders who go down the mine.  Three of Norm and Angel’s children get jobs there.  The youngest (and brightest), Kevin, is injured in an accident on his first day.  He is brain-damaged, his prospects and life stolen.  (There’s a wonderful moment in which Kevin, before his accident, is complaining of having to write an essay on Tim Winton – the doyen of coastal Australian tales!)  There is the sense that the ancient Dreamtime serpent, living underground, whose journey has been continued by Fishman and by association Will Phantom, has been disturbed by the mine.  Bad things start to occur to the town as soon as the mine opened.  Elias was murdered by the mining company.  Birds are drinking the contaminated water in the tailings dam and giving birth to mutations.  And not content with the land on which the mine itself sits, the company’s representatives are found by Will on other ancestral land that is sacred to the Phantoms.  There is an imbalance that needs to be put right.  Aided and abetted by Fishman’s crew, Will acts against the mine, with tragic consequences.

The book is not without blemishes.  There are some sections, particularly early on, that are overly long.  Also, Wright’s penchant for the oft-used “Well!” strangely seeps into different characters’ dialogue, which makes it sound as though the narrator is speaking.  She also rides roughshod over good grammar.  Pity the poor grammarian trying to make sense of missing commas, commas in wrong places, missing apostrophes and so on!  (There were also several proofreading errors in my copy, such as ‘breathe’ for ‘breath’, ‘too’ for ‘to’, ‘empathise’ for ‘emphasise’, and ‘gasp’ for ‘grasp’.)  I’ve got mixed feelings about the grammar.  The inconsistencies within the text may send some readers around the bend a little.  There are lengthy sections with pristine grammar, then sections that  are rough around the edges, which feel like they could have done with another round of editing.  Although sometimes distracting, and although there were sentences that technically had one meaning when they actually meant something else, there were few if any occasions when I didn’t have the sense of what the meaning should be.  I wonder whether the voice would have been crimped had grammatical conventions been followed to the letter.  I’m not so sure – I think the voice is powerful enough to survive good grammar.  I’d love to hear your views.

Given the story’s desperation, the book’s climactic scenes deliver a welcome catharsis.  There is a rebalancing of the Dreamtime spirits.  Through a cacophony of frogs, the landscape sings itself afresh.  Carpentaria is a powerful story, one that works away at you on many levels.  The mix of Dreamtime, myth, magic and harsh, frontier realism will stay with me for a long time.

I read this as part of Indigenous Literature Week 2012, hosted here by Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers.  Alexis Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Sue at Whispering Gums has a lovely muse on her memories of the novel here.

Carpentaria by Alexis Wright

2006

Giramondo

519 pages

ISBN: 9781920882174

Source: the local municipal library

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Saturday was wall-to-wall sessions, so apologies for some tardiness on my part, but there’s much to reflect on…

There was no better way to start my marathon Saturday than to sit with Kate Grenville and Ashley Hay to hear Grenville talk about her three colonial era books, The Secret River (see my review), The Lieutenant (see my review), and Sarah Thornhill (which had won the Australian Book Industry Awards gong for General Fiction book of the year on Friday night – my review forthcoming).  Regular readers will know I’m a fan of Grenville’s colonial stories.  Michael Heyward described The Secret River as one of Australia’s most important books in Friday’s ‘Classic’ discussion, which I think, (even given his bias as head of Text Publishing), is spot on.

Hay was a fine choice to conduct the session as she had her own love affair with Dawes – the man Grenville’s Lieutenant Rooke is based on – in her book The Body in the Clouds (see my review).  She asked Kate about landscape in her works.  Grenville said that imagination can work from very little.  The Hawkesbury is similar to the way it would have been at first settlement although the land management practices of the local indigenous population would have seen some differences.  One might have to work a little harder at Dawes Point, where the southern pylons of the harbour bridge now stand.  But even here there are some small footings of Dawes’ original observatory – and ‘you only have to squint and see the water and sky’ … to which Hay suggested she’d have to squint very hard!  But ‘the logic of the landscape is still there’ and the positioning of the observatory so far from the settlement (about a mile), told her much about the character of Dawes.  In this way, any place can tell you things as a writer.  Much of Sarah Thornhill is set in an area near Cessnock in NSW’s Hunter Valley, and she told us how she had driven around the valley’s vineyards trying to find a place that didn’t have vines growing over it so she could start to see this landscape as it would have been.  Ironically, she later described her visit to post Cyclone-Tracy Darwin – in which the world was utterly destroyed with houses turned upside down and cars up trees.  She felt numbness, a ‘limit of mind’, was blind without experience, and couldn’t find the words to describe what she was seeing.  (Me thinks she didn’t squint hard enough!)  But this yearning for making the strange familiar is what the colonial settlers were preoccupied by, choosing names after places from home (New South Wales for instance).

Somehow I’d managed to go for two days at a writers’ festival and not hear a reading!  So it was nice to finally hear a short reading from the start of Sarah Thornhill.  Grenville then relayed a lovely anecdote which I seem to have heard before, about how the voice of illiterate Sarah came to her – a voice that she described as: plain; strong; and being illiterate meant no large words.  She was hiking up a volcano in Auckland and for once did not have her notebook with her, just a pen and the paper bag her lunch came in.  The voice just came to her (cue much laughter about religious experience!) and she wrote the synopsis of the novel and a draft of those first few lines on the paper bag.  She brought that paper bag to show us (soon going into the National Library suggested Hay!) and read those drafted lines.  It was a fabulous thing to see the document on which the genesis (if you’ll excuse the pun) of a novel came into being.  Those first few lines, while a little different in the published work, survived pretty much intact over the – and I think I heard this right, though my ears didn’t believe it so I might have misheard – the 20-30(!) drafts she had to do.

The motivations for the two Thornhill books were discussed.  ‘Hidden things become toxic’ and shape behaviour down the generations.  These secrets must be brought up the surface and confronted before we can move on.  What happens when the secret comes out?  That was the question she sought to answer in Sarah Thornhill.  She explained the family history connections again, which have been well explored in other interviews, describing her interest as something that kept circling this family of stories, ‘like a moon around a planet’.  Not surprising, then, to hear her say she doesn’t think she’s finished with this world yet.

The discussion then moved to the decisions about the divide between black and white.  Thornhill made one choice, Dawes made another.  There was a sense of yin and yang about The Secret River and The Lieutenant.  When asked by an audience member whether women have a better chance of building bridges, Grenville said possibly, though Dawes did pretty well, even though he needed the native girl to come at least as far from the other direction.  She was asked about indigenous Point of View (POV), as she had written an indigenous character in one of her earlier novels, and much like Thomas Keneally (who had done the same in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith), would not write from an indigenous POV today.  Part of the reason was that she believed it wrong, another that there are fine indigenous authors such as Kim Scott (That Deadman Dance – see my review), and Alexis Wright (Carpentaria – my review).  (I know this is a sensitive topic and I agree that the indigenous authors we have now can write these stories so, so well, but I find it strange at a more general level that any author should restrict themselves in writing from the POV of another ethnicity because it’s ‘wrong’.  Authors constantly write their way into other ethnicities or socio-economic groups or cultures or histories.  How did Keneally imagine his way into the minds of Jews and Germans for Schindler’s Ark, for instance?  But I digress…)

So why historical fiction?  Grenville said she wasn’t interested in the past per se, more so in the present.  But every book is a coin in the currency of understanding our past, each is necessary and part of a larger conversation.  ‘Fiction and history need to walk hand-in-hand’, a nice riposte to all the brouhaha over the ‘history wars’ that followed publication of The Secret River.

She made a comment which I’ve heard a few times over the course of the last three days, which was that writers ‘create moments of spongy potential’, and that each reader re-creates that book in their own minds based on the person they are.  In this way books become very personal things.

She also commented that the literary establishment needs to be more flexible on the question of genre.  I found this last point interesting, considering Sarah Thornhill seemed to be marketed as ‘woman’s fiction’ – a term I loathe, but one that was echoed by a panellist in a different session I went to, who said she thought the cover of ST looked like a romance.  Why is it that ST put forward for the ‘general’ category at the ABIA?  Why was it marketed thus?  Well, perhaps the new cover for Sarah Thornhill, on the left here, will redress this somewhat.  It’s much more in keeping with the others in this colonial ‘sequence’, don’t you think?

One of the interesting aspects of writers’ festivals is that authors explain their approach to writing.  Grenville described hers as ‘shambolic’!, saying she usually writes 60-70K worth of ‘fragments’ before she sits down to see what she has and makes decisions on structure and plot.  She said it was ‘inefficient’ but worked for her.  What it does mean is there’s a lot left over after she cuts out the fragments that don’t belong.  Many of these have become short-stories, or ‘tributaries’ of the main river of story.  Out of The Secret River came four or five short stories, which I’ll have to find and read at some point, as well as a couple from The Lieutenant, and others.  There was a suggestion from an audience member to roll them into a collection.  Grenville seemed to feel that they didn’t want to fit together like that, but she left the door open.

Finally, the common thread that runs through her work?  ‘Deconstructing stereotypes’, which I though was a lovely way of describing her oeuvre, and as good an end to this muse as I can muster.

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