‘Praiseworthy’ by Alexis Wright (Review)

I’m always happy to get books I wasn’t expecting in my letter box, especially when they’re by writers whose work I’ve enjoyed before, and that was the case with my latest arrival.  Many moons ago, I was impressed by Alexis Wright’s novel Carpentaria, and this one is another big book blending the mythical and the real.  We’re heading north to spend some time in a very special town, where the people are grieving a momentous and ongoing loss – which would be far easier if it weren’t for some rather feisty and noisy intruders…

Praiseworthy (review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing) is an epic tale set in the far north of Australia.  The town of Praiseworthy is a settlement on the frontline of climate change, with temperatures already making life on the inhabitants’ traditional land unbearable.  The last thing they need, then, is the arrival of a menacing cloud, the haze, a plague of dust swirling above the town.  This dark visitation affects health and mood alike, making the locals’ lives worse than they already were.

Yet one man remains optimistic in the face of disaster, and that’s Cause Man Steel, AKA Widespread, AKA Planet, a man in tune with the ancestors and looking ahead to an apocalyptic future:

This was how he intended to make money from global warming, and improve the economy of self-reliance for every man, woman and child in Praiseworthy, who would become millionaires out of donkeys to ride out the overheating in the planet when their country became an inland desert of endless drought in a pandemic festering world.
pp.46/7 (Giramondo Publishing, 2023)

Yes, his plan is to clean up in the post-fossil-fuel era by harnessing the power of donkeys, and most of the early chapters see him roaming the great southern land in search of one very special donkey.  Unfortunately, his travels see him absent for months at a time, and back in Praiseworthy, disaster strikes, with an intervention affecting his family, and changing the face of the town, and its people, forever…

A breath-taking accomplishment spanning over seven-hundred pages, Praiseworthy is an absorbing story taking the reader away from their East-coast inner-city or suburban living rooms and dropping them in the harsh reality of the Top End.  It’s certainly not an easy read, both in terms of writing and content, and there’s a need to prepare yourself and work hard.  However, if you surrender to Wright’s style, allowing her wry asides and often manic creations to flow over you, you’ll soon recognise the book for what it is, a formidable achievement.

The town of Praiseworthy is a memorable creation in itself, with its numerous churches springing up in ramshackle tin sheds, old folk hanging out on plastic garden chairs in the street and children escaping from their homes at night, playing on the beach in the darkness.  The white folk charged with keeping the peace and ‘caring’ for the locals, are mere extras, two-dimensional bit-part players mostly hidden behind high fences in air-conditioned compounds while the locals steal the scene, often surrounded by the spirits of their ancestors.

The family at the heart of it all are outsiders occupying land around the cemetery on the outskirts of town.  With Widespread off most of the time hunting his mythical donkey, his long-suffering wife Dance is left  to clear up donkey poo and commune with the moths who gather in her presence.  Their younger son, Tommyhawk, is an eight-year-old genius fascist with dreams of being rescued by the Australian government, having been brainwashed by what he learns from his shiny new (government-donated) Apple hardware.  It’s this child that is responsible for much of what happens, starting an intervention that will have lasting and devastating effects.

Of all the characters, though, it’s perhaps the elder son, Aboriginal Sovereignty, who is at the centre of the story.  His disappearance is the cue for a community to mourn and lament their loss as ancestral spirits roam the beach looking out to sea in case he should return.  The name, of course, is no coincidence, and it’s not hard to see why the people of Praiseworthy are so distraught at losing something so important – all except, that is, the albino ‘Major Mayor’ Ice Pick, whose only concern is to get the townsfolk back to the mission of ‘closing the gap’.

On one level, Wright’s novel is a masterful exhibition of magical realism.  We follow Widespread on his mission in the desert, driving home with the long-awaited platinum donkey (and a swarm of moths leading him back to Praiseworthy); we’re choked by the haze above the town, a physical manifestation of the trouble besetting the country’s indigenous people; we whirl around in the twilight with Dance, oblivious to the outside world, caught up in one of her own:

Whoosh!  More wind blew, or, it was like that, felt from the flutter of a moth.  How sweet it would be, if one could read a story written on the wings of that moth stirring the breeze while flying in the moonlight.  Dance said nothing about the lost home while reading the unfathomable or innumerable messages held in the billions of microscopic scales stacked like sets of roof tiles on the wings of the moth.  She watched this flight of the immeasurable, of a holy epistle, a moth’s map of time, reading the text through the light waves hitting and bouncing off the ridges, ditches, the rivers and crossings contained in each scale. (p.525)

Whether in the town, on the beach, in the desert or at sea, everything is dialled up to eleven, a dazzling display of life in the burning north.

Yet Praiseworthy is also a work rooted in realism, dark and troubling, which extends beyond the very real problem of climate change (it’s certainly not an abstract issue for people already living in extreme heat).  The novel is set in the time of the the Australian Government’s ‘intervention’ in the Northern Territory, allegedly to ‘close the gap’ in living standards and keep people safe.  In reality, it involved sending people into those communities to chase ghosts, the paedophiles and sex offenders they imagined to be there, dog whistling of the highest order in an attempt to win the votes of middle Australia.  Poor Aboriginal Sovereignty is caught in the crossfire, labelled and separated from his partner, finally left with no choice but to leave.  I won’t give too much away about his subsequent fate, but it touches on another extremely controversial area of Australian government policy…

In addition to the spellbinding content, the writing is, of course, excellent, and the book abounds in word-play and savage take-downs:

You were the prized fool caught in the Australian government for the Aboriginal people’s half-hearted, hideous, slack-arsed epoch-making golden-era fantasies.  A dream world that had never arrived?  A circus that came and went – and came again and again, yet never closed the gaping hole of inequality between black and white.  You would be mad to say you wanted to be thrown into a chasm of the gap reaching right down to the centre of the Earth without anyone standing up there on the edge holding a lifeline to pull you out when you got sick of the fire in hell. (pp.296/7)

Wright plays with language, using jerky rhythms at times, switching between the voices of local people, the jargon of government officials and sprinklings of French and Italian.  She draws us in, making us laugh, and suspend our disbelief, with a mesmerising flow of words in a never-ending story, pushing on relentlessly.

The big story in Australia at the moment is the impending referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.  I won’t go into the politics here, but I suspect you can guess who’s for it and who has decided that it needs to be opposed, for reasons clear only to themselves.  In a climate thick with political agendas, Praiseworthy acts as a reminder that there are real communities and real people out there with issues, and a need to communicate them to the Ministers in Canberra (like the golden-haired government ‘mother’ Tommyhawk dreams of being saved by…).  There are times when the dreamlike tone changes, and the book suddenly morphs into a blistering attack on the failures of the Australian government, and their many racist and ill-considered plans to ‘help’ Indigenous people.  As much as we might congratulate ourselves on the progress, and the token gestures, that have been made over the past decades, Wright shows us that the gap is far from being closed.

I’ve been reading Praiseworthy on and off while dutifully going through this year’s International Booker Prize longlist, and if I’m honest, there’s really no comparison.  Wright’s novel is another stunning work that should hoover up literary prizes faster than Widespread’s donkeys gobble up the cemetery grass, a book for all of you out there who appreciate grown-up writing, literature with a capital L.  To finish off, I’ll just add one more point, a question: I wonder if Wright’s work has been translated into Swedish?  Why?  No reason – just asking for a few friends in Stockholm, that’s all…


8 thoughts on “‘Praiseworthy’ by Alexis Wright (Review)

  1. I’m excited to read this now! I almost bought it the other day but the 700+ pages put me off. Also: I need to read her other books first, I think. I have both on Kindle because my terrible eyes can no longer cope with the tiny fonts I physical copies. Anyway, excellent review Tony!


        1. Kim – I loathe ereading and only do it when absolutely necessary (such as for getting quick review copies during IBP time). And long books on a screen are something I would much rather avoid altogether…


          1. I see… I don’t have a problem with screen reading. It’s better for my eyes cos I can adjust the font size. I do prefer physical books but I don’t have a problem reading digital editions.

            Liked by 1 person

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