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Alexis Wright: Carpentaria

Alexis Wright had considerable difficulty getting this book published. It was turned down by every major Australian publisher and was finally published by a small publisher, Giramondo. The large Australian book shop chain, Angus and Robertson, had adopted a policy charging small and medium-sized publishers for stocking their books, meaning that the book, despite winning the Miles Franklin Award, the top Australian book prize, could only have limited distribution. Quite apart from the crass stupidity of Angus Robertson as regards its general policy, this novel is a superb novel, rich in description, peopled by memorable characters and with a series of first-class interlocking stories. It is also perhaps the best novel by an Australian Aborigine and the best about Aborigines.

The novel is set in the small fictitious town of Desperance, on the Gulf of Carpentaria. There had been a move to change the name but the new signs were all destroyed and the old name stayed. The town is divided into three parts. Initially, there were two. Uptown is where the whites live. They are the ones who (nominally) run the town – the majority of the local council and mayor, the police and the better shops. Pricklebush is where the Aborigines live, with rundown shacks, near the rubbish dump, with poor facilities. Our hero is Normal (Norm) Phantom. He is married to Angel Day. It was she who had chosen the location of their shack, just next to the rubbish dump which she saw not as unpleasant but as a source of rich pickings. It was Angel who had made the shack more or less waterproof with the materials she had found on the dump. It was also Angel that started the battle that led to one group moving out from the Westside to create a new shanty town on the Eastside. She had been scavenging and had found a old clock. Though the front was cracked, the clock worked and even had the key still in it. As she was concealing it, worried that she would be accused of stealing it, other scavengers came. She drove them off. This led to a battle between two groups and one group left for the Eastside. The whites were not happy with aboriginal groups on either side of them. The new group created a fictitious tribe for themselves, so they could claim it as ancestral land, something that was particularly valuable, with mining going on in the area.

Normal and Angel have seven children. Six were born before Norm went off on his five year long fishing trip and one, Kevin, after he came back. Kevin is the one with brains, though he is not happy about it, as he has to spend his time studying instead of enjoying himself with friends. Kevin is also prone to fits of violence and ends up having to be restrained. The two oldest boys, who are both big and strong, go to work for the mines. The three girls stay at home, while Will goes off with the itinerant preacher, Mozzie Fishman. Norm is something of the unofficial spokesman/leader of the Westside group. He has no qualms about standing up to the council, the viciously racist mayor, Bruiser, or Police Officer Truthful. They are always trying to harass him and he is frequently arrested but never convicted. He is also a superb fisherman, the way he makes his living, knowing places that no-one else knows. Above all, he is a character, independent, outspoken, not afraid of anyone (except perhaps his wife), loyal, decent but not averse to skirting the law. He is also in touch with the spirit world, which is very important for him. Even when his wife leaves him, first for Mozzie Fishman (his friend) and then leaves Mozzie Fishman for someone else, he is not too concerned.

One of the rare key events in Desperance is the arrival of Elias Smith. He seemingly walks out of the sea, though, in fact, he had apparently drifted in a boat and then walked up the long beach at low tide However, he remembers little, not even his name (Elias Smith is the name he is given). The inhabitants come to stare at him and then PC Truthful comes to question him but they can get no information from him. He becomes close friends with Norm and they go fishing together. Eventually, much against Norm’s advice, he becomes town guard. However, when a spate of fires break out, destroying the council offices and the shed of the council clerk where she keeps all the town records, Elias is suspected and forced to leave town. We later learn that Norm helps him leave.

Mozzie Fishman, the itinerant preacher, who is afraid of the water but has an uncanny knack for water divining with his nose, only appears later. He has a ramshackle bunch of vehicles and people, including Will Phantom, who travel round the region, often to the disgust and horror of the whites. On one journey, while returning to Desperance, they discover a body and it is Will who will link it to the mine and the dirty deeds that the mining people are committing, aided by his two older brothers. The second half of the book is set primarily around the activities of the mine and the evil things they do to promote their interest, with Will and, to a lesser extent, Mozzie as the avengers.

I find it completely amazing that all the major Australian publishers rejected this book. It really is a superb novel. I can only assume that, because the heroes are black and the villains white that put off some of the publishers who assumed their presumably primarily white audience would not approve. If you like a more realist novel this might not be to your taste. Wright delves into myth. She uses both dreams and The Dreaming in her story, so that it is not always clear what is happening and what is dreaming/The Dreaming. The three main characters – Norm, Mozzie and Will – are also larger than life archetypes. Norm is the reasonable man who will stand up for himself and his people. Will and Mozzie are both avengers while Mozzie is the offbeat spiritual leader. We have seen all of these types in other novels and, in particular, films, but Wright, of course, is able to give them a peculiar Australian Aborigine flavour. Great novels often take a small corner of the world – Joyce’s Dublin, Proust’s Paris, García Márquez’ Macondo – and make it the world and Wright has done this brilliantly with a small corner of Australia, barely known by Australians, let alone the rest of the world, to create one of the foremost Australian novels.

Publishing history

First published 2006 by Giramondo