Border Districts, Gerald Murnane

Murnane Border Districts

Border Districts (2017) is a meditation on remembering by an imaginary author clearly representing Murnane himself who has moved from the capital city where he grew up to a little town which he has long imagined, out on the western plains of the state in which he has always lived, so that one of the meanings of ‘border districts’ is this area of his home state which borders an adjacent state.

It is possible that Murnane intends at least partly an homage to Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Times Lost (1871-1922) which he mentions and which I haven’t read. He repeatedly brings up as memories not things he has seen but memories of the images retained from seeing these things and further, memories of images, scenes, transactions he in his childhood and youth imagined.

This work is a fiction, but a fiction which the fictional protagonist insists is factual, an accurate account of his real memories of both real and imagined landscapes and events. I am reminded that in the only other of his works that I have read, Landscape with Landscape (review), Murnane describes his personal ‘landscape’ as “the space between myself and the nearest woman or man who seemed real to me”. Here, 30 years later, ‘real’ has almost disappeared, leaving only a landscape of retained images of past realities and past imaginings, both equally valid, imperfectly recalled.

For a geography minded reader like me the book is interesting not least for its complete absence of place names. So, the fictional author grew up in the outer suburbs of the capital city (Melbourne) of a state in the southern part of the country, lived as a child for a while in a provincial city (Bendigo), and now lives in a little country town out on the plains of the Western District, which he moved to because he had imagined it.

(Whenever I recall, here in this quiet district near the border, my mostly aimless activity during my fifty and more years in the capital city, I begin to envy the sort of man who might have been paid a modest wage during most of his adult life in return for feeding and watering and grooming and exercising a half-dozen thoroughbred horses in a certain few sheds and paddocks behind a plantation of cypresses on the far side of an assortment of outbuildings in the vicinity of an immense garden surrounding a sprawling homestead out of sight of the nearest road, which would have appeared as one of the faintly coloured least of roads if ever I had seen it on some or another map of some or another of the mostly level grassy landscapes that seem often to lie in some or another far western district of my mind.)

He mentions a number of times a “place-name I have never been able to find in any gazeteer of the British Isles” a place name which he notices on his rare long journeys across the largely treeless plain to the capital city, and which I think is a name I too have seen and indeed look out for along the Melbourne-Adelaide highway, Ercildoun, a ‘Mt’ (prominent hill) north of Trawalla, and with an ‘e’ one of the large (tens of thousands of acres) grazing properties into which Victoria was first divided, and also, though he does not say, a fine old bank building in Footscray. “I learned from my reading that the place name is a much earlier version of the present-day name of a small town in the border district of Scotland”.

If Border Districts has a theme it is stained glass, or to be more accurate, the fictional author’s memory of the quality of light filtered through stained glass, the description of which he constantly refines. The book begins with the fictional author visiting a small church in the town in which he now lives, belonging “to one of the Protestant denominations I pitied as a schoolboy for the drabness of their services”, and which have windows with stained glass representations of leaves and stems and petals.

He remembers (Catholic) churches he attended as a boy and as a trainee priest and their representations in stained glass of Jesus, of Mary, and of the ‘Sacrament’. And an older house in the capital city in which he sometimes stays has stained glass in some of the windows which he photographs to study more closely at home.

This older house which I mentioned in the previous paragraph (which is a phrase Murnane, or his fictional author, use a lot) is the family home of a friend from his schooldays where the friend grew up, after his mother’s death, in the care of his father and his father’s maiden cousin whom he, the friend, calls Aunt. And the fictional author imagines for the Aunt a life in which she marries the man who wrote to her before his death at Gallipoli, a life in which the man comes home home from the War and lives the life mentioned in an earlier paragraph, as a groom on one of the great Western District estates, and they late in life have a daughter and that daughter is of an age with the fictional author and they become friends.

There is much more: coloured glass marbles; a kaliedoscope which works by rotating a marble at the end of a short tube; school Readers (which Victorians of a certain age will remember) which both he and the Aunt’s imaginary daughter read right through at the beginning of the school year and then must suffer through the remainder of the year readings out loud by their less progressed classmates; race meetings followed mostly on the radio and the owners who have the old estates in Western Victoria and their racing colours; an interview on the radio with a women author who catches his attention when she states that she has imagined a house which is situated in that part of the adjacent state nearest the home of the fictional author, and that she will locate and buy this house, which she is certain exists, and turn it into a retreat for authors of fiction, but not for poets or biographers. The fictional author writes to this woman author but she does not reply.

Murnane’s concerns are the border between mind and brain, the border between object and perception, the border which separates the past and our memory of the past. But ‘border’ also denotes a place away from the centre, a place on the outer –

As a young man, I was often driven to search … not only for writers but for painters sculptors and composers of music who lived in isolation from their kind, far from the putative centres of culture. Even in my youth, I seem to have been seeking evidence that the mind is a place best viewed from the borderlands.

Border Districts is one of those works, and probably one of those few great works, where the writing is more important than the subject matter. Where we are carried along, bemused, in a great writer’s train of thought.

 

Gerald Murnane, Border Districts, Giramondo, Melbourne, 2017

see also:
Lisa at ANZLL’s review of Border Districts (here)
Lisa’s other Murnane reviews (here)
My review of Murnane’s Landscape with Landscape (here)

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The Turning, Tim Winton

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Tim Winton (1960 – ) is a presence in Western Australia, Fremantle’s public intellectual, replacing Ben Elton. We have fairly low standards for public intellectuals over here. The public intellectual of the other end of town is a sharemarket miner, one of whose floats came good, and not just for those in at the beginning.

The boyishly personable Winton is not my favourite author but I feel constrained to keep up with what he is writing, a task made easier by much of his output being on audiobooks and by a lightness of style. His subject matter, other than in Cloudstreet (1991), is almost invariably adolescent boys in seaside towns in WA’s south west, ie. himself. Cloudstreet, as I remember it (not fondly!) is an evocation of suburban Perth in the 1960s, an excuse to bring up again the Rivervale mass murderer, Eric Cooke, himself just an extreme example of the Rivervale men I knew, first or second-hand, but for Winton a plot device, a base to touch. Rivervale, my home, slowly gentrifying now due to its closeness to the city, but for many years row upon row of fibro and galvanised iron State Housing houses on desolate sandy quarter acre blocks, which I have always imagined as the setting for Cloudstreet though apparently it is not.

The Turning (2004) is a novel in fragments. Wikipedia uses the expression “This multi award-winning collection of short stories” but I don’t agree. My reading is that this is one man’s story over time, focusing on his adolescence in ‘Angelus’ (Albany, Winton’s boyhood home town and a substantial regional port city in WA’s south) through a series of interconnected vignettes. Which of course implies that the  stories in which the man/boy – Vic Lang – doesn’t appear, still serve to illustrate aspects of Vic’s story, of his, and Winton’s, generation.

So, the opening story, Big World, is of two boys from Vic’s high school class who head off after graduation, heading north in their Kombi, picking up a girl along the way, growing apart. An essay on boyhood friendship and that Australian staple, mateship.

Right now, standing with Biggie on the salt lake at sunset, each of us still in our southern-boy uniform of boots, jeans and flannel shirt, I don’t care what happens beyond this moment. In the hot northern dusk, the world suddenly gets big around us, so big we just give in and watch.

I said above that Angelus, the setting for many of the stories, is Albany, a port city on the south coast with a history of whaling. This is clearly the case, despite many reviews referring to it as a small fishing town, though I do sometimes get the impression Winton has included aspects of smaller towns on the west coast, Augusta for instance. White Point where Vic’s family camp on holidays is a real place, a remote beach south of Augusta. In passing, Augusta is the setting for much of Stedman’s The Light Between the Oceans and Albany, ‘King George Town’, is both Kim Scott’s boyhood hometown and the setting for That Deadman Dance.

And speaking of Kim Scott, the defect in this book, and in Winton’s work generally is the way he almost completely ignores the substantial Noongar presence in the south west. The “Aboriginal kids from St Joe’s”, however favourably portrayed, who come up in a couple of these stories, are at best tokens. I can’t imagine Winton the environmental warrior is racist, or even ignorant, so can only imagine he has taken the conscious decision that Indigenous stories are not his to tell -which I would applaud – but that is no excuse for implying that Whites and Noongars do not interact.

Over the course of the stories we look at Vic’s relationships with girls, with his wife and with his father. We see Angelus’ underbelly of drugs, crime and corruption, Vic’s policeman father eventually disappearing, a cleanskin forced out and into hiding, discovered years later in a tiny remote community of old men in the Goldfields north of Kalgoorlie. We see also, over a number of stories, the Leapers, Frank a football star, Max an abusive husband, who come together after years of estrangement in a Winton-esque high moment of big wave surfing and sharks.

They bellied down the long, smooth face and beneath them the reef flickered all motley and dappled, weaves of current and colour and darting things that were buried with Max and him as a thundering cloud of whitewater overtook them. The blasts of water ripped through Leaper’s hair and pounded in his ears. The reef was all over him but he held fast to his brother, hugging him to the board, hanging on with all the strength left in his fingers, for as long as he could, and for longer than he should have.

I like The Turning. I think Winton has had a shot at writing something a bit different and it has largely worked. The movie too had good reviews and I must make an effort to see it.

 

Tim Winton, The Turning, Picador, Sydney, 2004 (interestingly, the cover of the copy I have – which was given to me by my sister in law, M to review two or three years ago – has a different, blacker cloud formation in the background, and others have a beach campfire instead of a car). Audio version, Bolinda Audio, read by Humphrey Bower and Caroline Lee

An Uncertain Grace, Krissy Kneen

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When I was a kid in the late 1950s the only commercial radio I heard was on the farm during school holidays, the radio in granddad’s ute tuned to 3SH Swan Hill (except around midday when he insisted on Blue Hills and the rural stock prices), playing Bobby Darrin, Dion, Ricky Nelson; I can still sing Vic Dana’s Red Roses for a Blue Lady. Even when I was a teenager the most popular singers on radio included Frank Sinatra, Matt Munro, and Tom Jones, and this at a time when The Beatles and the Rolling Stones had been around for 2 or 3 years. As the 60s passed I got into the Animals, the Loved Ones, Janice Joplin, King Crimson, the Doors – though sadly my all time favourite was and is Roy Orbison – but Sinatra et al were still around.

It was years before I realised that this confusion of singers hadn’t popped up out of nowhere but represented the continuation of a variety of streams – pre-war Swing (Sinatra), African-American Blues and White Country Rock. And of course over time they merged, continued, threw off new streams (and somewhere around Hip-Hop became unlistenable*).

Literature has as many streams as music. And for some reason – maybe with Climate Change its time has come – the stream that has come to the fore recently is Speculative Fiction and in particular Women’s SF – which I have argued elsewhere differs in significant ways from Men’s (aka ‘Mainstream’) SF. I wonder (idly!) if a part of the reason for this emergence -within Literature, rather than off to one side in genre – is the popularity of Margaret Attwood and her resolute refusal to be genre-ised.

In the past few years I have reviewed Jane Rawson (here, here, here), Ellen van Neerven (here), Alexis Wright (here). Charlotte Wood (here), Claire Coleman (here), and, to throw in a guy, Rodney Hall (here) not just because of my ongoing interest in SF but because they are genuinely at the forefront of new literature in Australia. And then there’s also Georgia Blain (here), Nathan Hobby (here), Robert Edeson (here, here) and Sue Parritt (here), of whom only the last is completely ‘straight’ SF.

Krissy Kneen is not an author I know, but this appears to be her sixth novel. It is a mixture of Speculative and Erotic fiction that I enjoyed. As for “streams”, the only direct predecessor I can think of is Linda Jaivin and the lightweight, amusing, sexy Rock ‘n’ Roll Babes from Outer Space (1996).

The novel begins with Caspar, a lecturer in Literature – a guy in the first person, lecturing: “If an author uses first person, a reader is trapped in her or his perspective …” – focusing his attention on the prettiest girl in his class. It soon becomes apparent that Caspar serially has affairs with a girl from each of his classes.

He gets his comeuppence when Liv, a previous afairee, leaves him a gift of a memory stick and a virtual reality suit which enables him to re-live their love-making as she experienced it, and he becomes “trapped in her perspective”. This on its own is a powerful short story. To be a man experiencing his fumblings and shortcomings from the woman’s point of view is intensely humbling,

I still have her skin on me. I still feel her hurt, her disappointment, her terrible bittersweet scent of ennui.

I wonder if the weeks will scour her body from my skin. I will become myself. I will return to myself unchanged because we don’t change, not ever. Or at least, I have not ever before.

 but Kneen’s ambition is greater than this and she leads us on through four more ‘short stories’, each also in the first person, from the POV of a person other than Liv, as Liv ages and refines her use of the suit.

Liv is a researcher working with paedophiles to see if they can use the suit to develop empathy. Her subject, Ronnie becomes a jellyfish, becomes all jellyfish through all time.

Cameron is a – 50 years of science fiction and I can’t recall the word for a robot with human consciousness, ahh, android – an android who looks like a pre-teen boy and who ‘genuinely’ wishes to make love with paedophiles, no. 35 in a sequence of androids who have been progressively “improved” and their predecessors eliminated, happy in his work until he is subverted by a girl his own age, Ellen.

M is trans, in a time when gender reassignment is readily available to minors. She has a genuinely asexual partner but slowly becomes attracted to an old lady, Liv, who is belatedly undertaking her own transition to trans.

Finally the ‘first person’ is Liv, beyond a century old, using all her money to to hire, becoming friends with a beautiful prostitute, in the suit experiencing youth and sex for the last time. In each of the stories Liv is a person who constructs narratives from the captured experiences of herself and others.

If this were one of my narratives I would begin here.

The first time I paid a prostitute to masturbate me was when my body had died. I was nothing more than a collection of thought patterns, memories stored digitally, circuits firing like synapses, and yet this woman was slipping her fingers up and inside me.

Kneen is an accomplished writer, melding metafiction, erotica and speculation to produce entertaining yet thoughtful fiction. If she were a singer I think she would be Ani DiFranco.

 

Krissy Kneen, An Uncertain Grace, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2017

see also: Kate W’s review at booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)


*Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer shows how much I know – New Yorker

Bohemia Beach, Justine Ettler

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It’s two decades since the last Justine Ettler novel. In 1995 and ’96 she published her smash hit The River Ophelia (review) – reissued last year – followed by Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure (review) then, nothing. If you read my interview with Justine coinciding with the re-release you might remember that she is a deliberately post-modern writer, referencing in particular Kathy Acker, and that her planned third novel which contained ‘cut-ups’ of real people was unable to be published, at least partly due to satirical renditions of the Murdochs.

The long interregnum began “because I hated being bullied and conflated with my character [‘Justine’ in TRO], I loathed my notoriety and felt the people I was dealing with didn’t really have me or my books’ best interests at heart.” (Author Interview, Justine Ettler). But she has at last resumed writing fiction and we now have her fourth (third published) novel, Bohemia Beach, due for release in May.

Ettler was famously at the heart of 1990s Australian Grunge Lit., a  categorisation repudiated by all the authors in it except maybe Linda Javin who didn’t really belong there anyway, but who took advantage of the popularity of Eat Me (1995), her work of middle class women’s erotica, to pump out the grunge-ish (and amusing) Rock ‘n’ Roll Babes from Outer Space (1996).

Andrew McGahan (Praise) and Christos Tsiolkas (Loaded) soon moved on to more mainstream styles, as did Javin. McGahan has been all over the place, including detective fiction (Last Drinks), and a much-lauded work of Indigenous appropriation, White Earth; while Tsiolkas progressed to literary interrogations of homosexuality, being Greek-Australian, and middle class mores.

In this novel Ettler has moved on too. Sort of. Her protagonist Cathy is a thirtyish, alcoholic, concert pianist. Ettler herself is apparently an accomplished musician, a flautist, and this shows in her writing about Cathy’s music, both listening and performance. But Ettler also has a PhD in postmodern literature and that shows too. There is a brief mention of Cathy from Wuthering Heights at the beginning although I can’t really see it in the text, but the main reference is to Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984).

ULB’s principal characters are (alright, I cheated here, it’s a fair while since I read it): “Tomáš, an adulterous surgeon; his wife Tereza, a photographer anguished by her husband’s infidelities; Tomáš’s lover Sabina, a free-spirited artist; Franz, a Swiss university professor and lover of Sabina; and finally Šimon, Tomáš’s estranged son from an earlier marriage” (wiki), and the setting is Prague, in the Spring of 1968.

I said moved on/sort of (from Grunge) because the novel is in the first person and a good deal of Cathy’s alcohol-deadened sensibility is very grunge-like. Cathy drinks a lot, to the extent that I’m surprised it doesn’t kill her – remember when sailors on shore leave would die of alcoholic poisoning and ‘derros’ had the DTs (delirium tremens), neither seem to happen (or be reported) any more – but here she is, about to step onstage:

Ok, I admit it, I’ve had a couple of glasses – well, a bottle or so – since leaving the hotel, but I’m nowhere near pissed. Would bygones never be bygones? That damn Copenhagen concert and the damage it did to my reputation; the scandal that followed my tumble off the front of the stage at the end of the second encore, not a scheduled bow, mind you, a spontaneous one, and one I just slightly overdid, but still, when are they going to let me move on? Yes, it’s true, waking up in the American ambassador’s residence in bed with two guys I didn’t know – one in front, the other behind – was a very bad look but God, everyone makes mistakes – right?

The problem I have is that it’s all a bit forced. Ettler struggles, trying and failing to get back to the hectic flow of her early writing. Nikki Gemmell, the same age as Ettler, and whose second novel Cleave/Alice Springs (1998) could easily be characterised as ‘outback grunge’, provides a back cover blurb, ” This is a mesmerising story of art and addiction – the author at her provocative best.” But she’s being kind.

The story, not told sequentially, is that Cathy performs in Prague, her mother’s home town; becomes fascinated by an older man, Tomáš, who may or may not have known her mother, and adopting (intermittently) the name Tereza, goes with him to a party at his family castle out in the country when she should be on a flight to New York for a concert there. Tomáš alternately sleeps with her and plays up to his dancer friend Anna. Drunk, she’s raped by Franz (a kindly man apparently in Kundera’s work); makes her way back to Prague. A nice American boy sleeps with her and offers to fly her to New York –

Do you ever have that dream which begins with an objective you must achieve, and with every move you make, you’re never any closer? I do all the time. TMI I know. Then there’s the one where I’m in a railway yard and there’re trains coming and the more tracks I cross the more there are to cross. All right I’ll stop now (there’s another one where I’m falling from an enormous height towards water, and then I fall through the surface of the water and I’m at an enormous height in the sky falling …).

And so Cathy’s repeated attempts to leave Prague are derailed by drunkenness or betrayal until finally she is swept away in a flood and wakes up in a bed in London and has it all been a dream?

At which point I advise you to stop, I wish I had, it all goes a bit Mills & Boonish from there. Cathy goes through that standard falling for the good guy then the bad guy thing, when in contemporary Oz Lit you’d have hoped her choices were at least good guy/bad guy/no guy. But we’ll forgive her (Ettler) and look forward to the next, the third hopefully, written when she was still young and edgy.

 

Justine Ettler, Bohemia Beach, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2018

see also:
Author Interview, Justine Ettler (here)
Justine Ettler, The River Ophelia (review)
Justine Ettler, Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure (review)
Kathy Acker, In Memoriam to Identity (review)
Nikki Gemmell, Love Song (review)

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017) is just the 56 year old Arundhati Roy’s second novel. Her first was the phenomenally successful The God of Small Things (1997) which I read years and years ago and of which I remember very little, and that probably wrongly – a train ride, a woman marries an untouchable, an uncle molests a child – but nevertheless I bought this one as soon as it came out last year and have been determined to read it ever since.

With only odd hours for reading, mostly standing out in the weather waiting for my truck to load or unload (tankers don’t require much physical intervention) I initially found that I was not remembering much more of the second than I did of the first, but around the 200pp mark it began to come together and I think now that I might have a handle on it, though a proper analysis would require multiple readings and reams of notes.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is an intimate novel inside a great sprawling novel, a novel of India, not the India of our casual acquaintance, of tourism, and brief stories in the business and foreign news pages, but the unseen India of the poor, the homeless, of gradations of skin colour, of untouchables, muslims, trans-sexuals; a novel with not 1.2 billion characters but nearly, all the oppressed of India and Kashmir ground down by a monolithic and indifferent upper class and their violently out of control military and para-military forces.

The ‘outside’ novel contains the story of Anjum, a woman born with a man’s parts, a hijra, who leaves her muslim family to live in a refuge for other hijras and then in mid-life leaves the refuge to construct another, which grows into the Jannat Guest House, little cabins built of scraps over graves in a disused cemetery. During this journey she acquires one daughter, Zainab who prefers to be brought up by another hirja, Saeeda, and then later a second, Miss Jebeen the Second, and a kaleidoscope of friends and acquaintances from all the minority language groups in the sub-continent living on the streets and in the slums of Delhi.

The ‘inside’ novel is a love story, the story of S. Tilottama (Tilo) a young woman from Kerala in the south who is loved by three men whom she meets when they take part in a play as students. Arundhati Roy’s wikipedia entry says that she

“was born in Shillong, Meghalaya, India [in 1961], to Mary Roy, a Malayali Syrian Christian women’s rights activist from Kerala and Rajib Roy, a Bengali Hindu tea plantation manager from Calcutta. When she was two, her parents divorced and she returned to Kerala with her mother and brother. For a time, the family lived with Roy’s maternal grandfather in Ooty, Tamil Nadu. When she was five, the family moved back to Kerala, where her mother started a school.

“Roy attended school at Corpus Christi, Kottayam, followed by the Lawrence School, Lovedale, in Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu. She then studied architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi.

This is also more or less Tilo’s back story. The three men are Biplab Dasgupta who becomes a senior public servant in the Intelligence Bureau, and who sometimes gets to tell his own story; Nagaraj Hariharan, a journalist and for a long time, Tilo’s husband; and Musa (Commander Gulrez) a freedom fighter in Kashmir and always Tilo’s lover.

The story is told in fragments, some from the present, some from the past. Quite early on we see Commander Gulrez’ mutilated body displayed as a trophy by Major Amrik Singh, of the Indian occupation forces in Kashmir, but we also see reports of the murder suicide of Amrik Singh and his wife in America. We meet Miss Jebeen the Second before we meet Miss Jebeen; and we don’t meet the real mother of Miss Jebeen the Second until right at the end when she writes posthumously of her life as Maoist insurgent fighting to protect the tribes in the Bastar forest whose land was/is wanted by mining companies.

At one time Tilo must have an abortion and wakes in a government hospital to find a sick child in bed with her –

There was more than one patient in every bed. There were patients on the floor. most of the visitors and family members who were crowded around them looked just as ill. Harried doctors and nurses picked their way through the chaos. It was like a wartime ward. Except that in Delhi there was no war other than the usual one – the war of the rich against the poor.

The power of this novel is in its depictions of poverty in Delhi; of the petty and not so petty tyrannies suffered by the many minorities; of the consequences of the rise of Hindu nationalism for members of the 21 other nations who weren’t Hindu; Of the consequences of capitalism for people without capital, without recourse to justice – do you remember the Union Carbide disaster?; of the many individual acts of resistance, typefied by Dr Azad Bharatiya and his ten year fast; of the horrific violence in Kashmir; of the many, many individuals whom we get to meet and love as they pass through the Jannat Guest House; but above all the power of this novel is in the language, in all the Hindu, Urdu, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Malayalam (and English) that washes over us.

Tilo ends up one of Anjum’s many friends, a Ustaniji, a teacher of children, in the Jannat Guest House in the abandoned cemetry. More than that I will not tell you, cannot without spoiling this marvellous story of love and war which unfolds unpredictably in all directions at once.

Jis Kashmir ko Khoon se sencha! Woh Kashmir hamara hai!

The Kashmir we have irrigated with our blood! That Kashmir is ours!

 

Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Hamish Hamilton (Penguin), 2017. 445pp

Carpentaria, Alexis Wright

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Alexis Wright (1950- ) is a Waanyi woman of the “southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria”. For non-Australians the Gulf of Carpentaria is the big body of water in the north of Australia – between the Northern Territory and Cape York Peninsula – and the Gulf country is the land to its immediate south: largely unpopulated, flat, tropical, seasonal rivers, mud flats and mangroves.

The Miles Franklin Award-winning Carpentaria (2006) made Wright’s reputation as a writer, but it is often mentioned that this is her second novel and I had to do some searching to find her first: Plains of Promise (UQP, 1997). She has also written some notable works of non-fiction, most recently her genre-busting (and large!) study of Tracker Tilmouth, Tracker (Giramondo, 2017).

Now I have to make an admission. I first listened to Carpentaria some years ago and intensely disliked it. Maybe I conflated Alexis Wright with Alex Miller but anyway I thought this was a white guy book, patronising and worst of all, magic realism. Since then I have read real magic realism from South America, not the fashionable, western wannabe stuff; sub-Saharan African spiritual realism; and above all, have made some inroads into the considerable body of Australian Indigenous Lit. with which we are now blessed, but particularly Kim Scott’s Benang (1999). So second time round I had a context for understanding what I was reading and of course found it marvellous.

The novel is set in the coastal township of Desperance, Qld which may be based on aspects of Burketown or Karumba. I wondered how personally Indigenous people in these towns took Wright’s depictions of them and their disputes, but Wright herself grew up in Cloncurry, 400 km south, not that there are any towns in between, so I guess her depictions are generic rather than particular.

We follow the lives of town elder Normal Phantom, his wife Angel Day and their son Will. Not linearly but swirling backwards and forwards in oral story telling fashion – much enhanced by the choice of Noongar actor Isaac Drandich to do the reading – to pick up aspects of the story that might have earlier been glossed over, as we slowly build up to the confrontation between Indigenous forces supporting Will Phantom and the local Big Miner, and the subsequent fall-out.

Indigenous Lit. has an element of looking at white middle class life from ‘underneath’ – Marie Munkara’s sardonic depictions of Darwin bureaucrats for  example – which gives a new aspect to our view of ourselves in general and to the myths of the Australian bushman in particular. Not just the casual, and not so casual, violence, but the self-interested decision making. Terra Nullius has an entirely new meaning when seen from the point of view of the people of whom the Land was supposedly Empty.

But Indigenous Lit. also has elements which are entirely its own. Country which lives. Fauna seemingly sentient and effective. Carpentaria begins:

The ancestral serpent, a creature larger than storm clouds, came down from the stars, laden with its own creative enormity. It moved graciously – if you had been watching with the eyes of a bird hovering in the sky far above the ground. looking down at the serpent’s wet body, glistening from the ancient sunlight, long before man was a creature who could contemplate the next moment in time. It came down those billions of tears ago, to crawl on its heavy belly, all around the wet clay soils in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Norm Phantom and Angel Day, not able to live in the township proper, build themselves a ‘castle’ in the pricklebush, outside the town limits, from scraps salvaged at the tip; raise a family of three boys, Will is the third, three girls and one more boy, Kevin, intelligent, lively, inquisitive, damaged in a mine accident and murdered by young white men playing out KKK fantasies. Norm is at odds with a rival faction led by old Joseph Midnight, from different country and so they end up westside mob, Norm’s lot, and eastside mob, on opposite sides of the town.

We find Norm older, Angel Day gone off with the preacher Mozzie Fishman who leads a convoy of followers in battered cars, his two older boys in secure employment with the mine, Will unemployed with a reputation for rebellion – a reputation whose slow unfolding is the core of the novel – estranged from his father, and as we discover eventually, partnered with Hope, old Midnight’s granddaughter and with a son, Bala. The daughters, abandoned by their men, home again, caring for Kevin.

An old man appears from the sea, walking in over the mud flats, amnesiac, given the name Elias Smith, is befriended by Norm and spends long days with him, out on the Gulf, fishing. When trouble comes he takes Hope and Bala in his dinghy, disappears into the mist. Reappears dead, sitting up in his boat with bags of ocean fish, floating in an inland lagoon. Discovered by Will and Fishman.

White men occupy the peripheries of the story, the policeman, Truthfull, growing fat, sleeping with Norm’s daughter, the only way to get him out of the house; Stan Bruiser, former snake oil salesman made good, now cattleman and town mayor: “If you can’t use it, eat it, or fuck it, it’s no use to you… everyone in town knew how he bragged about how he had chased every Aboriginal woman in town at various times until he ran them into the ground and raped them.” That this is sayable, writeable, over and over, not just by Wright, but by writers black and white, from Rosa Praed onwards is an indictment of the redneck North, of Queensland, of Australia. Of all of us.

But the real villain is Gurfurrit, the mining company, fiercely, murderously protective of its rights. And the most telling part of the story is the light that comes into the men’s eyes when they realise that they have taken on the mining company and won. One win after two centuries of defeats.

The most important part of this book is the writing, which is outstanding, but it also a confronting, unmissable story of love and eco-terrorism and life in the far north.

 

Alexis Wright, Carpentaria, Giramondo, Sydney, 2006. Audiobook: Bolinda, 2006, read by Isaac Drandich. 520pp/19.16 hours

see also:
Sue at Whispering Gum’s review of Carpentaria (here)
my review of Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (here)
Lisa at ANZLL’s Indigenous Reading list (here)

After, Nikki Gemmell

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Nikki Gemmell is an important Australian author. A true statement but I feel the tugging of “, I think”. I’m not sure that the literary world in general agrees with me, though her wikipedia entry, maybe written by a fan, says:

In France she has been described as a “female Jack Kerouac”. In 2007, the French literary magazine Lire included her in a list of what it called the fifty most important writers in the world – those it believed would have a significant influence on the literature of the 21st century.

Here, in Oz, her uncompromising inner views of women attempting to make a path for themselves in a hostile world and the staccato poetry of her language are no match for say the boyish charms of her contemporary, the people’s favourite Tim Winton.

Gemmell’s early novels are, in order, Shiver (1997), Cleave – originally published as Alice Springs (1998), Love Song (2002) and The Bride Stripped Bare (2003). I get the impression that she is gradually stripping away all extraneous action, increasingly focusing her attention inwards on women finding their way in a sexual world, and experimenting as she goes with the language to express that. [That is a para from my earlier review of Love Song (here) – not quoting, just reusing].

Her subsequent novels have been The Book of Rapture (2009), With My Body (2011), I Take You (2013) and there have been a number of works of non-fiction. Which brings us to After (2017) a memoir written in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide.


In the fraught world of euthanasia, I say this: if the perpetrator’s family cannot, by law, be involved in the wishes of the person wanting to die, then you’re condemning that person to a horrendously bleak and lonely death.


We begin in the morgue, in an ante-room, Nikki and her brother Paul, the older brother Andrew  choosing to be absent, remaining absent throughout, about to ‘identify’ their mother’s body – a redundant ritual now you’d say, though Gemmell doesn’t – the police with them supportive but also closely watchful, alert for signs, for evidence, that a crime may have been committed, that the obvious suicide, by an overdose of pills in the comfort of her lounge room, may have been ‘assisted’.

This is close up and personal, Nikki’s grief is visceral, its depth and immediacy expressed in broken sentences. But. Gemmell is a writer, a producer of literary output. So this is written from the heart, yes, but then rewritten and rewritten, packaged by a major publisher and presented to us to consume. Polished in its unpolishedness you might say. A writer must always say ‘look at how well I suffer’, her greatness being in making us forget that we are not looking at suffering but at a, at her, depiction of suffering.

The sense of abandonment. Here. In this place. The obscenity of that. The shell of our mother, the skin on her face already sinking into the hollows of her skull. Giving her that distinct, distancing, mask of death. It is not Elayn but an eviscerating absence more skull than life. It is our mother. It is not.

Gemmell’s mother found marriage too constricting, had left Bob her worker husband of twenty years forty years earlier, taken Nikki aged then 10, “the court ordered the boys to stay with their father”, left Wollongong for life in the big smoke, changed her name from the prosaic Elaine, “set about turning herself into who she really wanted to be”.

It is not clear that who she really wanted to be was a mother, and Nikki and Elayn bang heads for eight years until Nikki manages to leave home.

When I was young Elayn would fling, ‘No one likes you.’ When I craved prettiness, ‘You’re so ugly.’ When I didn’t measure up in terms of a daughter, ‘Why can’t you be like …  She wanted them but had me, her swotty clod of a thing. That could write.

Elayn hated Bob all the rest of her life and resented that Nikki didn’t. Elayn had been a model, there are photos of her throughout the book, and Nikki isn’t, though elocution lessons did get her into the national broadcaster. Elayn works and buys an old three bedroom flat in Sydney’s eastern, beachside suburbs and reinvents herself as a glamorous theatre goer. Years later Nikki is shocked to find that the flat is a tip inside, all her mother’s declining strength having been expended on external appearances.

Nikki marries, lives in London, has four children, exchanges brief visits with her mother, finally comes home, purchases a house in a neighbouring suburb and spends the final five years still banging heads but making she thinks, some progress. The last of those years is spent by Elayn in crippling pain after a botched operation, and you could hardly blame her for considering euthanasia. But without discussion or warning? In the week of her oldest and loved grandson’s Year 12 exams!

Gemmell is a weekly columnist in the Australian. She must have written something, her bewilderment at her mother’s choice. A chapter is devoted to readers’ responses. I skim it. Dr Philip Nitshke of Exit International tweets:

Nikki, it was empowerment! – your mother joined, #euthanasia PP Handbook, asked Exit forum Qs and imported.

So, Elayn’s death had been planned and kept secret for months. Gemma meets and becomes friends with a doctor who has suffered chronic pain and who with the full support of her children is planning to end her life in Switzerland where it is legal. Becomes more understanding of the problems of chronic pain and her own lack of awareness of her mother’s opioid drug addiction.

Writing this book is therapy, “Six months since the writing was begun, the maelstrom of bewilderment that was this book. Now, finally, stilled.” It’s an interesting work, but not her best. The edgy young woman of the earlier works is now a suburban mum and a Murdoch hack finding some peace in restoring her children’s valued porcelain pieces, smashed in a storm at around the time of her mother’s death, in line with the Japanese philosophy Kintsugi, to embrace the repair of an object as an aspect of its history, using lacquer mixed with powdered gold, which has acted as a metaphor throughout the work.

I checked the AWW Challenge site (here) and found only eight reviews for works by Gemmell – mine of Love Song not there so I’ll have to upset the statistics again (!) and include a back entry – which rather proves my case that she doesn’t receive much attention.

 

Nikki Gemmell, After, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2017

see also: My review of Love Song here