Part mystical, part practical, an absorbing and eventually enthralling view of Australia and Aboriginals from the inside out – that is what Alexis Wright has achieved with her second novel, Carpentaria. Any depiction of the indigenous people of Australia would be sadly lacking if it did not point out the injustices of dispossession and prejudice visited on one of the oldest cultures in the world. Wright is aptly armed to tell their tales, as she is a social activist for their cause and a member of the Waanyi, who inhabit the real Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Queensland.
It is perhaps this inside looking out position that causes Wright’s descriptions to differ so much from other literary glimpses of Aboriginals: Sad but sympathetic mentions in Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country, the romanticism of Marlo Morgan’s Mutant Message Down Under, an avoidance of the issue of marginalizing Aboriginals in The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, and the somewhat more realistic views of their lives in Bryce Courtenay’s Jessica.
Wright’s rambling, lengthy, sometimes stream-of-consciousness sentences fit her dreamy characters for whom time is as slippery as the ancestral snake that permeates and created their world, while they struggle to change a future that seems predestined. The style of writing is appropriate for someone who reveres a culture of that uses oral traditions (songs, chants, storytelling) to transmit information. Obviously, her writing style influences others, but I digress.
In the fictional town of Desperance, a name that connotes the inhabitants’ despair and desperation, the natural world both at sea and inland is as much a part of the Aboriginals’ lives as their own bodies: the wind, their breaths, the tidal flux of waters flowing like the blood in their veins, the land, their bones and bread. The spirits of the Ancients imbue every element of nature, and people think the spirits of the dead rise and inhabit places, influencing the lives of the living.
At opposite ends of the town live feuding mobs of native peoples, the Westsiders represented by Norm Phantom, a man of the waters. Norm’s nemeses on the Eastside are Joseph Midnight and his family, continuing a land dispute so old that no one can quite recall the gist of it.
Angel Day, Phantom’s wife of many years and many children, deserts him for the Eastside and the bed of alluring Mozzie Fishman, who leads years-long caravans along the land’s original tracks. His parade of vehicles traces paths of the Dreaming, a time before time:
- Bearers of the feared secret Law ceremony, these one hundred men were holy pilgrims of the Aboriginal world. Their convoy continued 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.
In a Romeo and Juliet touch, the second generation also joins together the bickering tribes when Norm and Angel’s son, Will, comes to love Hope, the daughter of Joseph Midnight. Will also escapes danger by joining one of Fishman’s trips, and Norm knows of the desertion. However, Will and Midnight’s offspring plot to destroy the conglomerate mining operation that left both tribes bereft of their indigenous lands. As a result, in a neat circularity, the results unite Norm with his grandson, the child of Hope and Will.
Multiple threads of stories weave in and out of the overarching themes of betrayal and belonging. Readers must hold onto the strands of one story, while following others through 528 pages, a challenging but ultimately rewarding endeavor. Carpentaria will not satisfy those who do not want to read about indigenous peoples or ways of thinking that differ from traditional Western linear ratiocination. For readers who can appreciate convoluted, self-referential tales and tolerate some incomplete resolutions, this book will deliver a great measure of enjoyment.
This edition of Carpentaria, published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, is available in April 2009. The book was originally published in Australia in 2006 by Giramondo. In 2007, it won Australia’s most prestigious prize, the Miles Franklin Literary Award. The author has also received several other prizes for it, including the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. It has been an international best seller even before release in the United States.