Same home, dif­fer­ent sto­ries in a search for the self

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Gray

PATTI Miller’s The Mind of a Thief is a 21st-cen­tury ver­sion of a fa­mil­iar theme: the white Aus­tralian search for iden­tity and place.

Un­til the 1970s this was seen as a cir­cling back to the imag­i­nary land­scape of the mother coun­try and, more re­cently, as a painful plea for ac­knowl­edg­ment and atone­ment from the Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture whose land we be­lat­edly un­der­stand we stole.

Miller grew up on Mary­lands, a wheat and white back­ground who made it in the big city, only to wake up one morn­ing and re­alise that ‘‘ some­thing fun­da­men­tal was miss­ing’’, that ‘‘ some­how, ter­ri­fy­ingly, noth­ing had mean­ing any more’’. Af­ter strug­gling to re­gain her foot­ing, she has a dream one morn­ing in Kings Cross in which a low, un­dra­matic voice mut­ters, ‘‘ Go back to the town you came from and tell its story.’’

Put like this, Miller’s story could sound cliched and even tawdry: the root­less­ness, the dream in­struc­tion, the dou­bling back into the in­te­rior to learn wis­dom at the el­ders’ feet. Marlo Mor­gan no­to­ri­ously ex­ploited this theme 20 years ago when her Mu­tant Mes­sage Down Un­der re­counted fan­tas­tic and fraud­u­lent tales of lost tribes, telepa­thy and se­cret cer­e­monies. search: for the foot­prints of the an­ces­tral be­ing Ba­iame, for whis­pers of an­cient knowl­edge of an in­land sea, for the Hindu-style lingam carv­ings on a bora ground, for her own blood­links to the Wi­rad­juri, for an Abo­rig­i­nal woman, Rose Chown, who will not talk.

She could even go fur­ther, as Mor­gan and oth­ers have done, back-hand­edly slan­der­ing Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture with tales of rape, wifebeat­ing and in­fan­ti­cide, all the old blood li­bels — and Miller does, in pass­ing, re­fer to th­ese things, as she must.

Of course, Miller is aware of all this. Even the book’s in­spired ti­tle is a ref­er­ence, in part, to the bora trees and cul­tural arte­facts which, she frankly ad­mits, she would rather see stolen and put on dis­play at Paris’s Musee du Quai Branly than de­stroyed. She con­sci­en­tiously she has had since child­hood, the ‘‘ cursed de­sire to im­press’’. She knows the ironies of her po­si­tion. The book is self-re­flec­tive and her mind is the mind of the thief.

As a re­sult, much of the book is re­counted in what seems to be a de­lib­er­ately un­dra­matic, un­ob­tru­sive style. She notes, with­out em­pha­sis­ing, that she was brought up nearly as poor as many of the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple she writes about, with no heat­ing and no hot shower, a bath­room with a tin dish of wa­ter, and in the morn­ing a ‘‘ dash across the frosty grass to the bro­ken fi­bro toi­let’’.

Other el­e­ments of her life — that she lived un­der a rail­way tarp for six months in New Zealand, for ex­am­ple — get the barest men­tion. Some of the most in­ter­est­ing as­pects of the story re­flect this deeply lived ex­pe­ri­ence:

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