Another Australia

“I want our people to have books, their own books, in their own communties, and written by our own people. I want the truth to be told, our truths, so, first and foremost, I hold my pen for the suffering in our communties. Let it not be mistaken: suffering is widespread in our communities.”  – Alexis Wright

There is a reason (other than school holidays) for my long absence of recent weeks. I’ve been reading a modern epic. I’ve been lugging it around on the train, to bed, to work, to cafe’s, pretty much anywhere I could find a few moments to get through a few more pages (a chapter would be too ambitious).

Carpentaria is the fourth novel I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 (if you want to join it’s not too late!). I’ve been wanting to read it for years – because it’s a Miles Franklin winner (2007), because it’s by an Aboriginal author(many of whom deserve to be more widely read), and because it was an underdog.

The manuscript was rejected by every major Australian publisher before being picked up by small publisher Giramondo. At the time of publication it got caught up in the controversial Angus & Robertson decision to play hardball with small press publishers by refusing to stock their books unless the publishers paid a fee. The big book giant was aiming to clear shelf space by getting rid of those pesky lesser known Aussie authors with small print runs to make way for the block buster international authors with high sales volumes. It caused one hell of a ruckus and had the effect of significantly lifting Carpentaria‘s sales figures.

Carpentaria is everything its shout lines promise it to be – part epic, part scripture and brimming with vivid characters that dominate its equally vivid landscape. It is an Australian literary triumph, the likes of which I’ve not read for a very long time.

However, at 518 glittering pages it is a big – no enormous – reading commitment to undertake, especially in these days where the quick fix read reigns supreme. It took me exactly 6 weeks (two library borrows) to finish it, but finish it I did and because I wanted to not because I felt I had to (although there was an element ‘I won’t let this thing beat me’ to it).

Alexis Wright is incapable of writing a boring sentence.

It was refreshing, and eye-opening, to read a story that has a contemporary Aboriginal world view at its heart. There are some challenges here for those who are unfamiliar with some of the core aspects of Aboriginal culture. The prose careens between the real and the unreal, integrating the ancient lore of a dreamtime landscape with modern Australian cultural life, and the divide between black and white that persists, particularly in the northern parts of this land.

Wright’s characters are complex and intensely imagined, like their names – Normal Phantom (seaman and fish embalmer), Angel Day (femme fatale and Queen of the rubbish dump), Bruiser (the bully-boy Mayor), Truthful (the failed policeman), Mozzie Fishman (the cultural Law Man).

‘This was the only man they knew who lived in the world of marine splendour, riding the troughs on God Almighty seas, surviving cyclones one after another, following a fish to where other fishing men had perished just for the sake of it, once in a while, returning to port to check on the family, before leaving the very next dawn. What a man! An asset to the town, an asset to his race, mind you.’ (re: Norm Phantom)

Entire communities become single characters in this novel, acting as one with various cultural voices combining to create a picture of a mob acting in its own best interests. Even the landscape, teeming with stories and spirits, is a character in this novel. Powerful beings from the Dreamtime move within and over the land, ghostly ancestors traverse the space between dreams and reality and interfere with the daily lives of human beings. There are pages devoted to the whims and rages of spirits of the sea and land and the violence of their jealousies, furies and kindnesses.

The story Carpentaria tells is enormous too. The prose is riddled with beauty and insights as Norm battles with his belligerent wife, Angel Day, and his disowned activist son, Will Phantom. The characters personal battles are fought within the larger landscape of the songlines of the land and sea and the clandestine activities of a vampire-like, morally bankrupt mining company. Sound familiar? Because it is. This is a tale that is fast becoming part of the Australian landscape – the mining company dominating political and social debate, drowning out the voice of the citizens of this country no matter what their colour.

“You know who we all hear about all the time now? International mining company. Look how we got to suit international mining people. Rich people.”

Wright has plenty of fun at the expense of the blundering, supercilious white inhabitants of the town of Desperance and her tongue in cheek moments are evenly and appropriately placed. She shows clearly how silly Australian mainstream culture can be, how ridiculous some of our social rules are and how smug are the generations of Australians who have grown up feeling entitled to their sanitised, abridged version of Australian history.

‘Remember! Who bloody knows what kind of traditions people have, who say they came from nowhere and don’t believe in their own God anymore.’

‘What could they do? It looked like defeat was imminent. And, that same old defeated look, two centuries full of it, began creeping back onto their faces.’

The rhythm of the prose required me to read differently. Perhaps it was the earthy vernacular, or the unfamiliar spirit beings and landscape, or just the lengthy chapters. There were two parts of the story I struggled with, both set in a cyclone, but that might have had more to do with not having the time to sit and consume it as a single chunk. Nonetheless, because the prose was such a pleasure and the story a challenge to read I never contemplated putting the book down.

If you can, make the time to ingest the world of Carpentaria. It won’t cease to surprise with its vast narrative and beautiful prose, and it will introduce you to a new way of looking at Australia and its people.

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. angggel
    Feb 23, 2013 @ 10:53:15

    It has to be my next read !


  2. Trackback: 2012 AWW Challenge Wrap-up: Diversity « Australian Women Writers Challenge
  3. Erika
    Apr 25, 2012 @ 03:07:02

    Thank you for your review! I read Carpentaria a couple of years ago, and the book simply became part of me. I loved the (yes, seemingly endless) storm passages and totally fell in love with the big fish. Spent several days googling fish pictures… I’m now secretly hoping that Alexis Wright will write a novel about Angel Day – she was, in my view, the most intriguing character, and sadly the least developed. Thanks to residentjudge for the tip about “Every Secret Thing”!


  4. Writers Wanted
    Apr 24, 2012 @ 14:15:18

    Excellent post today. Thanks for sharing. I really enjoyed it very much.

    Love writing? We would love for you to join us!

    Writers Wanted


  5. residentjudge
    Apr 24, 2012 @ 14:01:00

    I think that Carpentaria is one of the most important books that has been published in the last decade or so. As you point out, it’s a big commitment to undertake reading it, but well worthwhile. Have you read Maria Munkara’s “Every Secret Thing”? It’s not at all on the scale of Carpentaria (in size, concept and power), but I found similarities between the two books.


  6. Colleen Power
    Apr 24, 2012 @ 13:46:48

    As usual a fascinating review Kate. I remember one Aboriginal writer left wishing I was also aboriginal so I could experience Mother Earth as they do and am still trying to do that today. Much love and keep up the good work, your Dad would be so proud of you. xx


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