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
Source: the local municipal library