Stories from the Land, Stories from the Sea…

It’s taken a full nineteen days of the new year, but I’ve finally got around to reviewing my first book for the multitude of Australian challenges I’m participating in this year – and it’s a very good one to get me underway too 🙂  Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria was the winner of the 2007 Miles Franklin Award (Australia’s most well-known book prize), amongst a stack of other literary contests, thus promising to be an excellent read.  It certainly lives up to this promise…

*****
Carpentaria takes us to the Far-North-Queensland town of Desperance, an isolated little place on the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria, a reasonable plane journey from any major city.  A small white population lives in the town, existing mainly as vassals of the major mining company which has recently set up operations.  Meanwhile, skirting the town on opposite sides, two Aboriginal tribes live in what some see as squalor, but which others regard as a traditional way of life.

The two groups are led by larger-than-life elders.  The Eastsiders’ chief is the ancient trickster Joseph Midnight, but it is the head of the Westsiders who is the key to Carpentaria.  Normal Phantom is a fisherman, an ancient mariner with an unparallelled knowledge of the seas, and the stars which enable him to navigate them.  After his wife leaves him, he temporarily decides to stay at home, spending his time making miraculous specimens of stuffed fish for envious Whites.  It is not until one of his sons, the prodigal Will, returns to town bearing a less-than-welcome gift, that Norm decides that it is time to return to the ocean wave…

After the first two hundred pages or so of this book, I was starting to wonder if it was really a novel at all.  The pace unfolds slowly, unhurriedly, each chapter languidly introducing and following a new character – the laconic Norm and his haughty wife, Angel Day; the miracle from the sea, Elias Smith; the nomadic Mozzie Fishman and the mysterious Will Phantom.  The first half of the book seems to be more like a series of loosely-related novellas, set in the same town with a cast of extras in the background.  Slowly though, Wright allows us to learn more information about our new friends, and Will’s return to the aptly named Desperance (an apparent mix of hope and desperation…) kick-starts the narrative into another, more powerful gear.
On the surface, Carpentaria appears to be about the clash of the old and the new, the traditional and settling communities, but this is not really the case.  Although the white community is there in body, in another sense, they’re not really that important.  Despite their position in the centre of the town, they are in fact marginal, irrelevant – until, that is, the time comes for scapegoats to be found, and the paths of the communities cross.  In fact, for much of the book, more is made of the rivalry between the Westsiders and Eastsiders, both of whom believe they are the rightful owners of the land.

A more prominent issue is faith, and the way it supports those who truly believe.  Of course, in a book like Carpentaria, this idea of faith is far from being restricted to the Christian religions; it has just as much to do with indigenous beliefs in the dreamtime and the debt owed to the memories of one’s ancestors.  The characters who prosper in the book are those who have kept their connection with their past, who refuse to forget where they came from.

This is one of the problems for the white inhabitants of ‘Uptown’ – rootless and (practically, if not theoretically) godless, they have nothing to cling to, nothing that pulls them together except a dependence on the mining money and a shared fear of both the Aboriginal population and the sea.  This is a telling contrast to what drives people like Norm and Mozzie, whose constant retelling of inherited stories grounds them and connects them with with their past.
While Norm and Mozzie share a link with their history and traditions, they are separated in a much more fundamental way though, a gulf which is probably the biggest dividing force in Carpentaria.  Norm is a man of the sea, and Mozzie is deeply rooted to the land; both are unable to function properly outside their natural environment.  Norm is, metaphorically, if not literally, a fish out of water when stuck at home restoring his fish in his shed.  His soul belongs out on the sea, sailing alone under the stars, with only the fish for company.  Mozzie spends his life in a never-ending tour of the continent, visiting sacred places, paying respects to his ancestors and bending everyone’s ear with his stories.
Desperance itself, caught in an uneasy position of being delicately poised between the unforgiving arid land and the menacing, ever-shifting shoreline, is unable to establish itself, unable to decide what it is.  The white folk refuse to set out to sea, afraid of what might happen to them, preferring, despite their proximity to the wealth of the oceans, to look to the land for riches – a decision which will prove to be a misguided one by the end of the novel.
So what is Carpentaria?  It will probably be a lot of things to a lot of people.  It’s a story of tension between black and white and between different tribes.  It’s an exploration of the importance of faith and history, an emphasis on the necessity of belonging.  It’s a description of how life can be, far from the centres of ‘civilisation’.  It’s a novel with a wonderfully-imaginative style of writing, an Australian variety of magical realism, asking the reader to suspend disbelief while making them wonder if perhaps, just perhaps, it could all be true…
While reading Carpentaria, I had a small scrap of paper at the back of my book, ready for any pearls of wisdom which might occur to me.  By the time I had finished reading, it was full of messy, scrawled fragments, too many to use in what has already become a lengthy, incoherent ramble.  Even without being subjected to my musings on the role of angels, ghosts and demons, the suggestion of parallels with the American deep south and a lengthy polemic on racism, it will be pretty clear to the reader of this post that Carpentaria is a book I enjoyed greatly.
But how to leave the book behind…  Well, I think a look at the name of one of our new friends will help us out here.  In one way, the name of the book’s main character sums the novel up pretty well as phantoms abound in the seas around Desperance.  In another though, it’s not terribly apt; you see, as I hope has become apparent by now, there’s definitely nothing normal about Carpentaria
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12 thoughts on “Stories from the Land, Stories from the Sea…

  1. Thanks for your review, Tony.

    I've heard a lot about Carpentaria, but have yet to read it. Your review has made me wish I'd put it on my challenge list. One reader told me the book lost her halfway through, and your review helps to explain why. But I enjoy magic realism and don't mind a slow pace where the story unfolds. (I think I'd also enjoy reading the messy scrawled fragments you jotted down!)

    Thanks, too, for participating in and promoting the Australian Women Writers 2012 challenge. Don't forget to ping @auswomenwriters on Twitter with links to your reviews or use the #AWW2012 hashtag. You might also like AWW Wednesdays when participants are encouraged to read and comment on other participants' reviews (links posted on the AWW challenge page in 2nd Mr Linky box).

    Hope you enjoy your next book as much as this one.

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  2. I tried to read this a few years ago but ended up giving up on it – something I very rarely do. I am trying to think if I got up to the 200 page mark but I don't think I did.

    For me, at least, I think it made me work far too hard for far too little pay off. Maybe one day I will try again. Maybe not.

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  3. Good review, and having read this one for the challenge myself, I agree with every word. I was so stunned by the book my review is basically “it was good; everyone should read it”, so it's nice to see someone was able to be a bit more sophisticated about it than I was 🙂

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  4. Elizabeth – It's well worth reading; anyone who enjoys literary fiction should enjoy this 🙂

    I'll try to pop in on Wednesday too (assuming I remember!)

    Marg – Do try it again – I enjoyed the slow pace as much as the more plot-driven parts. It's an excellent example of good, Australian writing.

    Jo – As I mentioned, I had all those notes, so I had to use as much of it as possible! It is tempting to just say “Read it!” though, I agree 🙂

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  5. When I compiled my small Australian writers list (all from the TBR pile) I forgot so many. This is one of them and your review makes it gain a few positions on that pile. I don't think I've ever come across a form of Australian magical realism so that's another thing I'm looking forward to and the fact that it seesm one can't really nail this book. It will be very different depending on the reader.

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  6. Jo – Thanks 🙂 There's definitely a lot happening, too much to get down in one post anyway.

    Caroline – Each reader will take their own thoughts away from the book. In saying 'Australian Magical Realism', I'm referring mainly to the parts with Aboriginal characters, where there's a tendency to acknowledge that there is more to life than meets the eye, allowing reality to bend slightly without it disturbing the reader – but you'll have to see for yourself…

    Gary – No worries – all part of the service 🙂

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  7. Great review. I read Carpentaria several years ago and it took me a few false starts to get into it. But as you said, it is definitely worth it; a challenge, but one that pays off. I would have struggled to review it though, so I think yours is excellent.

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  8. Thanks 🙂

    A lot of people have said that it's hard to get into, but I'm not sure why. Perhaps there are expectations there that aren't initially fulfilled – I'm not quite sure what they are…

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