Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Rodney Hall’

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

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The D!

  

Read Full Post »