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Posts Tagged ‘Miles Franklin Award’

Bring Larks and Heroes by Thomas KeneallyFor school excursions we used to go up to ‘Old Sydney Town’, in the hills on the Central Coast, north of Sydney. There we would see how the early convict settlers of New South Wales lived. It’s hard to recall all the details, but apart from women wearing bonnets and fulsome dresses with lots of frills, and a tall ship that became the centrepiece of some sort of acrobatic show with muskets firing and smoke and men diving into the water, possibly to escape the dastardly redcoats.

The only other thing that is seared into my mind was the re-enactment of a convict’s flogging. Much discussion ensued over what the actors used for blood. Was it tomato sauce? Strawberry jam? Some form of red dye? It was a garish red, almost as garish as the howls of the poor man enduring the indignity of having his back slashed for our entertainment. It was entertainment, at least that’s how I remember it, precisely because it wasn’t real. Perhaps the act itself was so alien a concept that my schoolboy mind couldn’t grasp the innate horror of it. Yet it resides in my mind still, the clearest image of all I took away from several visits.

There’s no playacting in Thomas Keneally’s Miles Franklin-winning novel Bring Larks and Heroes, especially when it comes to flogging. Set in an unnamed penal colony in the South Pacific in the late eighteenth century, it offers a stark and harrowing portrait of a settlement in which humanity and justice have been disavowed. The floggings metered out run into the hundreds of lashes. The descriptions of the suppurating wounds are indelible.

The story centres on Irishman Phelim Halloran, a soft-souled man in a hard world. Having joined the marines from prison he finds himself at ‘world’s worse end’, a place where sunlight ‘burrows like a worm in both eyeballs’, and vegetable gardens are described as ‘futile’.

He cannot marry his sweetheart Ann Rush, a convict servant, because there is no Catholic priest in the settlement. He identifies with the revolutionary Irish prisoners more than he does his Protestant English superiors. He feels himself to be living in a legend ‘because he underwent all the fervours set down in legends and in poetry.’

Things begin to change for Halloran when he escorts Ewers, a convict artist, upriver to what appears to be a fictional Rose Hill (Parramatta). There, Halloran finds Mealey, an Irish felon who has been so badly flogged he cannot move:

… Mealey’s unspeakable wound. It was so huge an injury that you needed to verify your first sight of it, were compelled towards it, pushing your nose through its solid reek. … Mealy was half-way wrapped round by a fat, black, vampiring slough.

The smell of it makes Halloran throw-up.

It is here that Halloran meets the Irish political prisoner Robert Hearn, a man who will seduce him into a conspiracy to steal provisions and a promissory note from the Commissary. Halloran argues with Hearn over the issue of justice, but in his heart he knows that Hearn is right, that something must be done to change the status-quo. His rebellious feelings are stirred when Ewers is arrested for raping an officer’s wife; it’s to Halloran Ewers turns, proving in the process that he is a eunuch. Nonetheless, Ewers is hanged.

It is not the only injustice that Halloran witnesses. Quinn, a convict whose term has expired asks Halloran to write a petition to the Governor. He ends up getting an interview with His Excellency, but finds the convict records back in England. (This actually happened in the early colony of New South Wales.) His Excellency cannot approve Quinn’s honest petition. When Quinn then slanders an officer, he is flogged. He blames poor Halloran because, as Ann notes, he couldn’t see clear to blame anyone higher up.

These injustices pile one on top of the other until the silver-tongued Hearn twists Halloran’s hand. The tragedy that transpires as a result is incredibly moving.

Written in omniscient narrator in a modernist style, it’s very much a product of its time. (All that ‘hissing’ that characters do!) Although the parallels are obvious, Keneally eschewed setting the tale in Sydney Cove, in part because in 1967 when the book was published the question of our convict past was still a fraught topic for readers. In an author’s note Keneally writes that he used the word felon in preference to convict because the latter ‘possesses pungent overtones and colours, a word loaded with distracting evocations, especially for Australian readers’. Of course, nowadays we are more likely to boast of convict ancestry than deny it! It’s a fascinating measure of how far we’ve come, and shows how a novel like Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (see my review here) can find the stage to be written (although it’s worth noting that Grenville’s work also plays around with the historical timeline, though to a much lesser extent).

In any event, it allows him to play around with events and historical truths. The failed Irish uprising of 1804 is decoupled and pulled forward into the late 1780s, allowing it to be connected to the French revolution.

There are other oddities which only make sense in a fictional settlement, such as the early arrival of an East Indiaman—a ship of the East India Company. ‘Natives’ are mentioned only in passing and only around three or so times. We do get this early, though significant, nod:

They would see no black people, Ann and he. Somewhere between the skirting-board and carpet-edge of the land, the black race, with the secrecy of moths, was dying of smallpox. Or, perhaps, dying out.

So much for the fictional setting: it’s clear he’s writing of Australia. There are many similarities with the early colony of New South Wales, such as the smallpox epidemic of 1789 that wiped out a significant percentage of Sydney-basin Aborigines; the way Aborigines used fish oil to ward off insects; the failed crops and reduced rations of a populace heading toward starvation; the terrible fact of early convicts serving their sentence out only to find their records had not been brought out from England to confirm their claims, forcing them to remain in servitude way beyond their original sentence; and the harsh environment (one of the highlights of the prose), and the borrowed landscapes: for example, ‘the Crescent’ was the name given to the curve of the river as it bends near Government House in what was Rose Hill (later renamed Parramatta).

There are some very droll moments, such as Mrs Blythe’s maladies, and the delightful scene with Ewers and Mrs Dakar, the woman who would subsequently claim he raped her, in which a captured kingfisher adds his own voice with ‘a talent for supplying affirmatives for Ewers’ in the form of deliberate ‘ucks’! But overall they feel few and far between because of the thrust of the story.

Bring Larks and Heroes is Keneally’s third novel. Geordie Williamson, in his excellent introduction, recounts a critic’s comments on Keneally’s second book: that the former seminarian would only produce ‘something lasting’ when ‘he wrote the Priesthood out of his guts’. Williamson argues that Keneally has overcome the Catholic dogma which allows him ‘free play of his imagination’. Well, Catholicism is still front and centre in this novel, although Halloran’s conscience is driven not only by his faith but by what he considers just. It is in this way that Keneally overcomes dogma.

Stylistically, Keneally is still finding his voice. The lighter prose evident in later works stands in stark contrast to the ebullient modernism on show here, replete with unusual words to test the reader’s personal dictionary (contumaceous anyone?!). It reminded me of Keneally’s words in a typically engaging Sydney Writers’ Festival discussion last year, in which he discussed how in ‘his day’ a publisher would allow a writer three books to find their groove; they would invest in their potential. He went on to lament the lack of time and investment given to new authors today.

We are fortunate that Keneally, at least, was given the time to find his voice. He won the Miles Franklin again the following year for Three Cheers for the Paraclete, and of course went on to write many other bestsellers, including the Booker Prize-winning Schindler’s Ark. His style may have changed, but his concern for the individual hasn’t. Those images of flayed backs will stay with me for years, the perfect answer to my long-held question of what substance marked the convicts’ backs: blood.

Bring Larks and Heroes by Thomas Keneally

1967

Text Classics

369 pages

ISBN: 1921922237

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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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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Congratulations to Kim Scott for winning the Miles Franklin Award for That Deadman Dance.  See my review here.  It is an important novel, one that should be well and widely read. 

The D!

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Session #99: ‘The Fascinator’: Gail Jones, Ashley Hall, and Delia Falconer in Conversation on Sydney:

Another great panel discussion marshalled by Jill Eddington, this time on Sydney and how it speaks to three authors whose latest books are set in or are about the harbour city.  I must confess I have not read any of these books yet (sigh), which, for a Sydney-sider like my good self is a bit poor, and after hearing each talk about their work it seems like even more of a shortcoming. 

Gail Jones has been nominated for the Miles Franklin Award three times.  Her latest is Five Bells is a story of four adults and a child whose lives converge on a single Saturday on Sydney Harbour – specifically around the Quay area. 

Ashley Hay has written several non-fiction books, (I have Gum on my shelf, one that I like particularly).  Her first novel is The Body in the Clouds, which has three different people in Sydney in different time periods (one of whom is William Dawes) witness the same amazing thing: a man falling out of the sky.  It sounds like a great premise for a novel! 

Delia Falconer needs no introduction, but whereas Ashley has gone from non-fiction to fiction, Delia’s latest, Sydney , sees her go the other way.  (I must admit to thinking of Peter Carey’s wonderful little book on Sydney, called Thirty Days in Sydney, which I highly recommend.)

One of the interesting points that Jill Eddington made at the start is how the three books speak to the others, and how they might be read as a triumvirate (I feel a possible reading task for the Dilettante coming on!).  Jill asked them were they aware of each other’s work.  Ashley had read a proof copy of Gail’s story.  Gail knew of Delia’s book after exchanging emails with her about Kenneth Slessor’s famous Sydney harbour poem Five Bells, which they both love.  Delia was delighted in writing a non-fiction book not to have the anxieties that a fiction author might have when they know another author is writing about the same thing.  Ashley said that she had the unnerving reality of knowing Kate Grenville was writing about Dawes too, and indeed Kate made contact with her and they discussed their projects, which she was glad about as she could see that while William Dawes features in both their novels – being the focal point of Kate Grenville’s excellent The Lieutenant (see my review here) – she also saw that they were writing vastly different stories. 

The authors then spoke about the haunting that seems to live within Sydney, the sense of time slip, an obvious influence for Ashley’s book.  Gail said the origins of Five Bells were in the haunting Sydney harbour ferry crossing the harbour in darkness (which made me think of another well known poem, Late Ferry by Robert Grey).  For Gail, there is this sense of the brash light and modern structures but there are dark underpinnings, there are always currents moving beneath the city.  There is this sense of slippage. 

Ashley loves the harbour just beneath the harbour bridge and the bridge itself becomes a character in her book.  Ironically, it was in moving to Brisbane that allowed her to enter into her own imagination more which gave her the freedom to finish the story. 

Delia spoke of the sense of loss that underpins the city, the loss of Eora in the 1789 smallpox epidemic.  She too pointed to the layers in the harbour and spoke of how the ‘fascinator’ of the session’s title spoke to her not just of the brash hat worn by ladies at the races but of a bewitching character she had read in a story that was known by such a name. 

Ashley thought that Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow which she read in formative years (didn’t we all?!) is to blame for all this time slippage, saying that to her that Park’s story was real.   There is a sense in some Sydney streets that you could look down them and not only see, say, the 1800’s, but actually feel like you are in the 1800s, so powerful is the undercurrent. 

The Rocks is one such place – the setting, of course, of Playing Beatie Bow

Gail said there is a wonderful record, I believe she said in the State Library, of photographs of buildings before they were demolished – ny building that was demolished was recorded in a lot of detail.  The photos stretch back to 1890’s – a boon for novelists seeking a streetscape of a by-gone era. 

There were research gems for each author.  Delia spoke of Reverend Franck Cash of Christ Church North Sydney who wrote an ‘insane’ book about the demolition of Milson’s Point to make way for the bridge when it was being built.  He had photos of ‘ghost’ buildings in the act of falling down as they were being demolished. 

For Ashley, going to London and being able to flick through William Dawes’s original notebooks was thrilling.  They are now online too. 

Gail said that she had a dinner with Kate Grenville in London when Kate was reading those same books at another time – a small world!  Gail spoke about her Chinese research – one of her characters in Five Bells is a Chinese woman.  Gail spoke to survivors of the Cultural Revolution when she was in Shanghai, as well as reading many accounts of that time.  Her character comes to Sydney with that weight and shows strength to carry it forward. 

Of course, the harbour is the focal point of Sydney and is that way in these books too (no matter how hard Delia might have tried to avoid it at first!). 

Delia thinks the harbour is so suggestive.  There is a ‘wateriness’ about Sydney.  It’s there in the tides too.  She feels the harbour is a mirror for us. 

Gail said the harbour is a stage – a ‘place for art’.  She tried in her novel to recreate the novelty of those iconic things such as the Opera House and the bridge which many Sydney-siders take for granted (not me!).  Ashley rounded off proceedings by saying an apt tribute to Sydney Harbour is the fact that it is used as an (international?) measure for an amount of water.  In the recent Brisbane floods, she became very aware of ‘Syd Harbs’ – how many Syd Harbs were flowing down the Brisbane River. 

I think it might be a nice future project to read all three and see if Jill was right – whether these three books, two novels, one non-fiction, do indeed speak to each other…

The D!

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Not a bad spot for a literary festival!

Well, what a great – and packed – start to the Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF).  Here’s the start of my summary of the sessions I managed to get to today. 

1: (session #18): ‘That Deadman Dance’: Kim Scott in Discussion with Geordie Williamson

I couldn’t think of a better way to start the heart of the SWF week than sitting down to listen to Kim Scott talk about his Miles Franklin and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-shortlisted That Deadman Dance.  I loved the book (read my review here) so it was great to hear Kim talk about some of the thinking behind it.  Asked about where the title came from he spoke about how it refers to an actual historical event in which the indigenous Noongar people appropriated a British soliders’ drill which they had seen and made it into a dance – how this signified both the way in which Noongar people shared stories and absorbed culture into their own, and also how it spoke of something that is essentially a show of force and rigour into something that became an altogether more poetic thing – a dance.  There were many such examples of cross-cultural pollination.  The novel seeks to do the same.  

Kim works spends time working on the revitalisation of the Noongar language.  He spoke about the reading of landscape, how the Noongar most probably believed at the time of colonisation that the white settlers could not steal the spirit inherent in the landscape and in their people.  This in part might explain why they were so willing to help the new comers, to lead them to good land and show them where to find water. 

Kim was asked to speak to a specific image in the later part of the book in which the heavy weight of the nation’s flag flies atop the bones of his people.  It was not just his people, but those of Dr Cross, one of the few white settlers in the book who attempted to recognise the Noongars’ right of ownership of the land.  It is something that is difficult to think about and talk about, said Scott, that heavy weight built on the bones of such people. 

He spoke of the Noongar literary records he has been researching and how the Noongar people appropriated words of English such as glass into their documents – this is another example of the possible grafting of languages, one into another.  Culture is not a static thing, it is dynamic. 

He said when asked about the black and white worlds in Australia, how he preferred to think of it as one world, though he made the point that this is very simplistic.  He went onto make a very telling point about how western thinking is one way of thinking: empirical, linear, and so on – whereas Noongar and indigenous thinking is different, is centred on place.  He spoke that we have perhaps made the mistake of trying to make one way of thinking (black) fit into the other (white) way, whereas we should be trying to fit the white way into the black – that is to say we should make more of an effort to think in terms of place.  Geordie made the point that this is not just an Australian-centric issue, that all countries are faced with trying to make this shift too, to look after the scarce resources, to take care of the world in which we live. 

He spoke about how difficult it was to write about the inter-tribal relationships in the book, how some non-Noongar tribes acted in consort with white settlers against Noongar, but it was part of the richness of relationships that needed to be part of the novel. 

He spoke too about the character name of Bobby Wabalanginy – how his surname is a combination of noongar words which means ‘all of us playing together’, and yet Bobby was a name routinely given to black ambassadors in colonial records, something derogatory and demeaning to turn these helpful people into ‘Bobby’, (possibly based on the English Bobby as the local policeman).  So the character name is a combination of these things: the ambassador, the ‘cruel’ name of Bobby, and the positive surname. 

The richness of the Noongar language, said Scott, is ‘mindblowing’.  The word for kiss – which sounded like ‘Muun’ (forgive my spelling, I figure it is incorrect) – is wonderful as the act of saying that word with the lips makes the act of kissing.  Saying the word makes the word.  There is a richness in indigenous language which he sees as something we should all be protecting and also as something which can empower indigenous peoples. 

A great book.  A great session. 

My only gripe?  Some of those windows letting in the glorious Sydney sun behind the stage need to be covered up to improve attendees’ viewing comfort.  There’s plenty of natural light coming in through the sides. 

(More to come from day one…)

The D!

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Do you like a good brouhaha?  I do.  Even if it’s just so I can use that word: brouhaha.  And that’s certainly what we’ve had in the last week since the shortlist for the Miles Franklin was announced.  Of course, last year it was all the ‘genre’ debate when Peter Temple won for Truth.  Not satisfied, this year we’ve doubled up with two debates!  The first of these is on the prize’s requirement that books portray ‘Australian life in any of its phases’.  Does this shut out some novels, some themes?  The other is the gender debate.  Three shortlisted novels and no female authors.  Feathers have flown!  These are important debates and need an airing.  The number of female winners (13 by my count) of the MF is small compared to male winners (40, soon to be 41) – roughly 24%.  That seems low, but it’s just a statistic.  I’d love to join the cut and thrust, but I’ve felt compelled to sit on the sidelines.  The reason?  Pure and simple: I haven’t read all the books on the shortlist, let alone the long-list.  How can I point to any bias when I can’t support my arguments?  All I can do is quote statistics and we all know what they say about them.  Numbers give us a headline, and perhaps part of a story, but the whole story deserves more intellectual firepower than the Dilettante has at his disposal.  (And look – it’s got me talking about myself in the third person, that can’t be a good thing!) 

The only downside to a brouhaha is that it creates noise.  Books that have been shortlisted, like Kim Scott’s novel, are at risk of being drowned out.  And that would be a shame, for That Deadman Dance is a fine novel. 

It tells the story of first contact between ‘the pale horizon people’ and the indigenous Noongar people in the area ofAlbany and King George Sound on the southern West Australian coastline. 

The story is layered, multi-stranded and non-linear.  There is a large and wonderful set of characters.  There are shifts between Noongar and settler points of views and ways of seeing.  The different time frames have caused some readers difficulty.  I found a couple of small sections a little hard to follow at first, but overall I didn’t find the shifts too difficult.  I think a second reading would illuminate them even more.  There is certainly no way of missing where the story is and where it is heading in a larger sense.  What they sometimes produce is a bit of repetition which I found, in some cases at least, a little ponderous.  It hope to learn more about these shifts when Scott talks about the novel at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. 

For the most part, Scott’s writing has a lovely rhythm to it.  This is no surprise given his Noongar heritage, for the Noongar are a very musical people.  Noongar language is often used which adds a depth and a sense of music to the prose.  The environment is wonderfully drawn too.  There are touches of Melville’s Moby-Dick in the whaling scenes – the peeling of whale blubber “like rind from an orange” is a notable echo [p242]. 

I enjoyed the way Scott weaves in the aboriginal customs and culture into the story, how he explains things.  There are some nice ironic inversions too.  For example, [p13] we have Menak, one the elders of the Noongar, thinking about the newcomers: “… if nothing else, they might be useful allies against others who, to Menak’s mind, were little more than savages.”  [my emphasis]

Relationships between Noongar and settlers occur on several levels.  There is sharing, mutual benefit and friendship.  There is love.  There is misunderstanding, theft, betrayal and whitewashing.  There is murder and loss. 

Among the first colonists is Dr Cross who lets the Noongar sleep in his house and share his food.  He understands the land has been seized from them.  “He is our friend,” says Wooral, another elder, [p24].  But already Menat, the sole female elder, is seeing what Wooral cannot, that [p24] the white men more generally are “Devils!  Smile to your face but turn around and he is your enemy.  These people chase us from our own country.  They kill our animals and if we eat one of their sheep … they shoot us.”  Menak, growing into his role as one of the few elders after sickness takes the lives of many Noongar, listens closely to her argument.  It shapes him, the story, and in the end it shapes us. 

Dr Cross looks out for one of the Noongar in particular: Bobby Wabalanginy, whose name means [p39], “all of us playing together”.  This is the story’s theme in a nutshell.  He is a young Noongar boy when the story starts.  We see him dancing on a ship’s deck.  He is a leader.  It is obvious in his dancing, for when he first danced he broke out of the ‘chorus’ line, if I can use that term, and comes centre stage, joining the elder leading the dance even though he is the youngest amongst them.  Bobby is playful, comic, a performer.  His stories come with a smile and ready wink.  When he recounts his story he says of himself, [p67], “Bobby … never learned fear; not until he was pretty well a grown man did he ever even know it.”  For Bobby, that deadman dance “was a dance of life”.  Bobby is the fulcrum around which the large cast of characters swings.  He is the binding between peoples, growing up in both camps, just like Kim Scott himself. 

Good Dr Cross dies and is buried next to his great friend Wunyeran.  It is Bobby who tells us of this earliest contact, the love between the two men, the sharing.  Bobby [p350] “imagined their bodies rolling toward another as the flesh fell away, bones touching, spirits fusing in the earth.”  But the graves are disturbed for progress’ sake and Cross is removed to another graveyard while Wunyeran’s bones are left exposed, stolen by dogs, crunched by thoughtless builders.  Bobby is dismayed, as are we: the division and ‘leaving behind’ metaphor is powerful.   

Cross is replaced by the mercantile Chaine.  He controls trade with the whalers and begins to hunt whales.  He employs Bobby who acts as a steerer on one of Chaine’s whaleboats.  For a time there is a shared pursuit.  There is ‘plenty’.  Bobby is happy, although he does not delight in the deaths of the whales and doesn’t eat them – he has a special affinity with them [p274]: “Bobby heard the whales singing.  They sang for him.”  Menak, older now, set in his ways, defiant, he sees the devastation of the whales for what it is.  He mourns the doleful music their bones make on the beaches.  He knows they will run out.  

In the early days the colonists are outnumbered by the blacks.  There is fear.  Over time the balance of power shifts.  By the end the whitefellas have the ascendency, the Noongar are the minority.  Food is scarce.  The whales are gone, hunted almost to extinction.  When the whites arrived the blacks shared their food with them.  Now their food is gone, they want to share the sheep of the white man but he is not willing.  Food was always a flashpoint in all first contact relationships, from the days of Sydney Cove on.  

In the second part (1826-30) we are thrown a little we go back in time but the narrator is Bobby looking back on these years from some future time.  He recounts his life for tourists, for scraps.  But even here he is a showman, not just because of a natural inclination, but out of necessity.  He needs that showmanship to earn a crust.  He says, [106]:

Me and my people … My people and I (he winked) are not so good traders as we thought.  We thought making friends was the best thing, and never knew that when we took your flour and sugar and tea and blankets that we’d lose everything of ours.  We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours… 

He is then forced to add directly after:

But yes, of course, you’re right, you’re right; my life is good, and I am happy to talk to everyone, and welcome you as friends.  The same God and the same good King looks over us all, does he not, my fellow subjects?

And what can we do for Bobby now, after all that has happened to him and the Noongar?  Bobby (and Scott) offers us this, [p128]:

All his friends and family kept that boy Bobby Wabalanginy alive, just by loving him, wanting him, and wanting him to stay where he was.  Stay is his place.

With the unravelling of relationships and the demise of the promise of the earliest friendships, we sense that things cannot end well.  Old Menak and Menat lose their status as proper elders.  Bobby begins to make trouble, railing against the injustices perpetrated by Chaine and the colonists. 

Bobby has this to say about the power of stories, how they can transform us, [p86]:

… you can dive deep into a book and not know just how deep until you return gasping to the surface, and are surprised at yourself, your new and so very sensitive skin.  As if you’re someone else altogether, some new self trying on the words. 

The end is poignant, powerful, memorable.  When I finished That Deadman Dance I just wanted to sit with its final images.  Turn them over in my mind.  Feel them resonate.  I wanted to go and find Bobby and say to him, ‘What can we do together?’  We should all be facing Bobby Wabalanginy, looking at his dance, embracing his offer of friendship, of family.  Our bones will all go down to the sea together and mix with the bones of whales and become something else.  In the meantime we should face him.  For all those wrapped up in other debates about missing books and themes and authors, take a seat and share Bobby’s story.  Those debates are important, but there is no more important theme than our country, our people, our family, how we might share the past and the future. 

That Deadman Dance is an important book.  

I’m really looking forward to seeing and hearing Kim Scott at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in a few short weeks.  That Deadman Dance is shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the winner of which will be announced at the festival.  Can’t wait.      

Lisa over at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed That Deadman Dance, (as well as the other two MF shortlisted books). 

And Morag Fraser’s – one of the MF judges – loved it too.  See her SMH review.

The Dilettante’s Rating: 4.5/5

That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott

Picador

2010

ISBN: 9781405040440

395 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)

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Every time a new Tim Winton novel comes out I somehow find myself thinking, Ah, another story set in a coastal town in Western Australia, with a small cast of off-beat, earthy (yet never quirky), and slightly ‘broken’ characters, many of whom are known by their nickname, written in trademark ‘muscular’ prose with warm humour, and always, always the use of the word ‘saurian’ – an ever-present friend that has become so much of a trademark that it borders on a tic*.  Oh, and, of course, the Miles Franklin Award sticker on the front cover!  Perhaps this is why it has taken me some time to come around to reading the wonderful Breath.  That pretty much sums him up doesn’t it?  Well, the answer, as it turns out, is both yes and no.

Reading Winton is an engaging, physical experience.  You not only see the environment and people he depicts, you feel them.  In the Miles Franklin Award-winning (I warned you!) Breath, the prose is pared back to raw essentials – and what wonderful essentials they are.  There are no bells and whistles here; this is the antidote to those who dislike (or are at least a little weary of) the pyrotechnics of Dave Eggers, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer and their ilk.  Instead, there is a precise economy.  The result?  Writing that reaches a new-found power.

It is fair to say that it ‘sings’ – and I use that word deliberately, because I relished the way in which the senses are so engaged, particularly sound.  Breath is such an aural experience, perhaps no surprise for a writer whose last novel (also a Miles Franklin winner) was entitled Dirt Music – if you can make music out of dirt, then think of the music you can make out of everything else!  The earth ‘hums’, oars creak in their rowlocks, wattlebirds ‘buzz’, kids’ bikes ‘whirr and clatter’, styrofoam surfboards ‘squeak’.  And then there is the ocean, the roaring surf, whose repeated descriptions over the course of a book might veer toward sameness in lesser hands, but Winton sustains the dynamism of the seascapes beautifully.  We get an early taste, and, like Bruce Pike, out narrator, we are hooked (p27):

Waves ground around the headland, line upon line of them, smooth and turquoise, reeling across the bay to spend themselves in a final mauling rush against the bar at the rivermouth.  The air seethed with noise and salt; I was giddy with it.

Later, Bruce tells of the first time he surfed ‘Old Smoky’ – the offshore giants that only get going in huge storm swells, (p113):

… the sight of the thing pitching out across the bommie drove a blade of fear right through me.  Just the sound of spray hissing back off the crest inspired terror; it was the sound of sheetmetal shearing itself to pieces.  The wave drove onto the shoal and the report cannoned across the water and slapped against my chest.

There is such energy in these passages; the writing whizzes us forward as if we are on (or watching!) those waves too.  And even when Winton does not describe the sound of something, such as the dour local baker’s ‘loaves like house bricks’, you still hear them in your head, clunking down onto the shop counter with supreme finality.  Elsewhere, Pikelet remembers (p67) coming home “at dusk with my ears ringing from the quiet.”  Music, it seems, is everywhere.

We first meet Bruce as a 50-year-old paramedic when he’s called out to what looks like an apparent teenage suicide.  But he sees through the dressed up situation to the truth that the mother wants hidden and his paramedic partner cannot see.  We then return to Bruce’s childhood growing up in Sawyer, a sleepy coastal town (I warned you!), where he is known as ‘Pikelet’ by his daring sidekick Loonie.  Pikelet and Loonie make fun by diving into the river and holding their breath, holding onto the ‘saurian’ tree roots (bingo!) on the bottom.  They also hold their breath and hyperventilate until their vision becomes tunnelled and they see stars.  But it is the surf that enthrals them and soon they find themselves in awe of ‘Sando’, a mid-30’s surfer dude married to the moody Eva.  They learn to surf and see Sando, a man who rides the biggest waves, as a God; and they become his disciples.  Sando soon takes them to offshore and distant breaks which, by turns, get larger, more thrilling, and more dangerous.  They become addicted to the thrill, obsessed by it.  For Pikelet, there is in surfing “the outlaw feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do.” (p29).

Interestingly, in these opening pages of Bruce’s childhood, we see Loonie much more clearly.  Loonie takes centre stage, “greedy about risk”, whilst Pikelet is slightly more circumspect and unsure of himself.  I enjoyed this slow revealing of our narrator – we get to know him far more gradually than we do Loonie who bursts onto the scene and demands attention.  The most we get on Pikelet is his reminiscences of his very first – and unforgettable – wave (p40):

And though I’ve lived to be an old man with my own share of happiness for all the mess I made, I still judge every joyous moment, every victory and revelation against those few seconds of living.

Indeed, Bruce goes onto think that (p50):

More than once since then I’ve wondered whether the life-threatening high-jinks that Loonie and I and Sando and Eva got up to … were anything more than a rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath.

We follow Pikelet as he experiences the to-ing and fro-ing of the triangular relationship that he shares with Sando and Loonie.  Both Pikelet and Loonie in turn experience moments of intimacy with Sando.  When Loonie breaks his arm, Pikelet is taken out big-wave hunting by Sando; then Loonie travels to Bali with Sando and Pikelet is left behind, commiserating with Eva as she recovers from yet another knee operation.  These alternating moments of intimacy with their cult-leader are like the ins and outs of the tide, with Pikelet and Loonie increasingly at polar ends as a space opens up between them that cannot be filled.  Pikelet’s obsession needs a new home whilst Sando is away and it finds an unexpected outlet.

I’ve made much of the sound of this story, but Winton engages every sense fully.  Pikelet’s chief memory of high school is the bus ride (p44):

… the smells of vinyl and diesel and toothpaste, corrugated iron shelters out by the highway, rain-soaked farmkids, the funk of wet wool and greasy scalps, the staccato rattle of the perspex emergency window, the silent feuds and the low-gear labouring behind pig trucks, the spidery handwriting of homework done in your lap, and the heartbreaking winter dusk that greeted you as the bus rolled back across the bridge into Sawyer. 

But, quelle horreur, not content with his trademark ‘saurian’, Winton has to tread on my territory, finding a place in his pared-back prose for the dilettante (p217) as we find out more about Eva’s past aerial skiing – she turns out to be every bit the adrenalin junkie that the boys are.  All I can say is: ‘Back off Winton – dilettante is mine!’  (Ah, but the sad truth is I admire him even more now than I did before, damn him!)

‘Breath’ is, of course, a recurring motif, but it is not over-used.  There is the hyper-ventilating Loonie and Pikelet, the holding of breath beneath pummelling waves, the stop-start snoring of Pikelet’s father, the briny breath of the sea, and the unravelling obsession of characters’ relationship with breath and breathing.  We know Bruce is a broken man, but he eventually finds an outlet for his thrill-seeking in his job as a paramedic.  Others are not so fortunate.

Breath has strong autobiographical undertones – Winton nearly drowned as a youth and was always scaring himself surfing big waves.  But it seems its author is anything but broken.  This book ticks all the Winton boxes and therefore seems ripe to be characterised as ‘just another Winton’.  Yes, it is these things, but it somehow seems more than them too.  Breath’s raw energy and pared-back essence is masterful and it deserves all the praise it has garnered to-date.  I’m already looking forward to the next time I pick up a book and see the word ‘saurian’…

* Saurian: of, relating to, or resembling a lizard.

Breath by Tim Winton

Penguin

ISBN: 9780143009580

265 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).

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What is the price of progress?

It seems the better the book, the slower I read!  This is counterintuitive perhaps, but I like to slow down and really—for want of a better description—gorge on beautiful writing.  I finished Just Relations a few days back but have been so flat out with other things (and other books!) I haven’t had time to write a review.

Just Relations is in many ways a product of its time.  Published in 1982, and winner of the Miles Franklin that year, it is a longish book.  In this regard it reminds me of books published around that time such as Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie, and Illywhacker by Peter Carey (a little later, 1985)—and I mean this in terms of length as well as style and quality.  Great books transcend the time they are written in and are always worth going back to.

(Of course in ‘those’ days, there was no internet!  What did people do with their spare time?  They read, (or went to primary school in my case!).  Today, we are in a very interesting time in publishing with everyone’s short attention spans and the rise of e-books.  Perhaps one of the most interesting questions is what it all means for the length of the book.  I’ve heard it said many a time that publishers will not consider publishing manuscripts over 120,000 words, unless the author is established.  But are books such as Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel reversing this trend, or is this a mere speed-bump on the road to shorter and shorter novels?  I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.  I could also pass comment about the changes in literary awards here, particularly with regard to books that win the Miles Franklin, but I shall desist!)

For lovers of quirky Australian tales with elements of magic realism that are beautifully written, Just Relations will not disappoint.  The by-line of the book is “A tiny, remote Australian community unites to thwart progress.”  It is a good summary of the town of Whitey’s Fall which is built up a strange mountain of gold that looms over the town and its old folk who gather silently in the Mountain Hotel, (the pub), to muse over their ‘religion’ of ‘Remembering’.

The opening scene will tell you much about the flavour of the story.  Into the town arrives Vivien Lang, a young English woman who enters the general store run by the ancient Mrs Brinsmead and presents her with a letter of introduction.  Felicity Brinsmead is old, like most Whitey Fallers and carries with her grotesque sack of hair and a terrible secret.  Vivien is a relation of one of the townsfolk (now living in England), and she is here to claim her relative’s property.  Mrs Brinsmead is excited by the arrival of so young a person in so old a town, and promises herself to introduce the woman to ‘Remembering’.  In the meantime the shopkeeper is having a conversation with the shop itself, who is a very miserable indeed(!)

After Viven’s exit, Billy Swan walks into the shop and asks for half a dozen sticks of gelignite.  This raises a few eyebrows.  The town was built years ago on the gold found in the mountain, and here is someone asking for explosives.  Has he found more gold?  Or has he found the gold but wants to not extract it but to blow it apart so that the town can remain the quiet backwater it is and not be over-run by every Tom, Dick and Harry on the back of the next gold-rush?  Mrs Brinsmead can’t find either gelignite or dynamite.  (It turns out that the ‘Fido’ she constantly calls out to is not the invisible dog that everyone thinks she is (madly) calling after, but her son, who she and her brother keep imprisoned in their house—not wanting to let him be known to the other townsfolk for he represents undeniable progress.  It’s Fido who has hoarded all the explosives.  But for what purpose?)

Billy leaves empty-handed and angry.  He soon meets Vivien and a relationship blossoms between them after they witness the death in a car crash of Mrs Ping who drives off the Mountain road.  And this is just the first one hundred pages or so!

It is impossible to summarise the cast of odd characters that Hall has assembled here.  They are as strange and quirky as the town.  The story is full of comedy, farce, tragedy, and wonderfully unbridled imagination.  There are many harrowing events; it seems Hall has a penchant for the grotesque things that people inflict upon themselves—or situations they wander into without warning.  Mrs Ping’s death is one example.  As is her husband “The Narcissist’s” razor-blade self-harm.

The town has steadfastly ignored the claims—and letters—of the outside world.  Things come to a head when Progress—represented by the new highway being built right through the town—threatens their very way of life.  (This made me think of a question asked of Peter Carey in London at a reading I attended when he was promoting True History of the Kelly Gang.  When asked whether he thought it terrible that the new freeway that skirted Glenrowan meant that people passed by without knowing the town and its history, he replied that ‘no, the people who want to know will take the turn-off’.  This is not quite what the townsfolk of Whitey’s Fall face, indeed quite the opposite, but they are both facets of the same ‘Progress’.)

What with the approach of the highway, what will the explosives in Whitey’s Fall be used for now?  The highway roadworks uncover the gold, but only the townsolf notice.  There is a lot of humour throughout the novel.  In this section we see Senator Halloran attempt to rally support for the road.  He says of the development that is cutting up the land: “Ecology is a web.  This road will make you part of it.”  How very droll!

No wonder Just Relations won the Miles Franklin Award, an award Hall has won twice, and been short-listed a further four times.  That’s a total of six short-listed novels out of the eleven he has written.  (He has also written numerous poetry volumes, non-fiction, and edited several poetry anthologies.)

Strangely, I haven’t read a lot of Hall’s work.  I heard him talk at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (2010) where he read from his just published memoir, Popeye Never Told You.  In that reading he described a German bombing raid in WWII.  The prose was sparse, haunting—and perfect for the subject.

In Just Relations, the prose is both lustrous and weighty, a combination that may seem impossible, but Hall achieves it.  I wonder how much the likes of Winton with all his ‘muscularity’ learnt from him?  Whatever the answer, he is, on the face of this book alone, a worthy teacher.

It might not reach the great heights of the works by Rushdie and Carey noted above, and here and there is perhaps a little indulgent—reflective of the time perhaps.  But its imagination is no less exciting.  It exhibits an intriguing range of narrative styles and voices.  It turns out the price of progress can be quite high, yet it also brings love and the promise of a new generation.

Just Relations kept me company for a while, and what good company it was!

Just Relations by Rodney Hall

Penguin

ISBN: 0 14 00.6974 7          [clearly an old ISBN format!]

502 pages

Source: The Local Municipal Library

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