Sunday, 6 September 2015

Carpentaria

Finished August 22
Carpentaria by Alexis Wright

I bought this novel from Red Kangaroo Books as a souvenir when I visited Alice Springs in 2009, so about time I finally got around to reading it. The novel was the winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award for 2007. Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation.
It is set in the gulf country of north-western Queensland around the town of Desperance. The town was settled by people named Smith some indeterminate time back. The aboriginals have split into two groups: the Westend Pricklebush people named by Norm Phantom, and the splinter group in the Eastend, led by Joseph Midnight. Norm had a strong-willed wife, Angel Day, with whom he had seven children, the daughters Girlie, Janice, and Patsy, and the sons Donny, Inso, Will, and Kevin. Donny and Inso work at the Gurfurrit mine that both supports the community with jobs, and kills the community through its activities. Kevin, the youngest, has disabilities that often confine him to bed with seizures. Will has his own part of the story here. Norm stuffs fish, making them seem alive again, and using his own secret mixture of ingredients to do so.
Angel eventually leaves Norm to take up with Mozzie Fishman, a religious figure who leads a convoy of aboriginal men through the desert on long trips of conversion, and moves to the Eastend.
One day a man walks out of the ocean, having lost everything in a storm, including most of his memory. His name is Elias Smith, and the two adopts him easily. He forms a friendship with Norm and often the two fish in the ocean together until the mayor, Stan Bruiser, conscripts Elias to be town watchman. When something goes horribly wrong in town, Elias is blamed and driven from the town, and the magical part of the story begins in earnest. Will is blamed, and local police officer Truthful E'Strange is searching for him, while drawn to one of his sisters.
This is a story of myths and politics, of white and aboriginal, of land and water. As the story began, the river was being renamed Normal from its previous Wangala, after Norm Phantom.
I would classify this book as a tale using elements of magic realism to tell the tale of colonialism, corporate greed, native rights, and the land itself. It refers to the ancestral serpent, the creator of Dreamtime, and the names of people both tell us about them and mislead us. Time is hard to pin down, and the elements are used to control the plot, moving people towards and apart from each other. This is a tale of depth, of layers and meanings that you have to think about. A wonderful book that I am already drawn to reread.

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