NEW AUSTRALIAN FICTION:
FROM reading the blurbs to Jacqueline Wright’s (no relation) Red Dirt Talking (Fremantle Press, 352pp, $27.99) and Sue Woolfe’s The Oldest Song in the World (Fourth Estate, 393pp, $29.99) you might almost think they were one and the same book.
A white woman in her 30s with issues goes to the outback on academic research and learns how to live with herself and with Aboriginal culture.
Of the two Red Dirt Talking is the stronger. In fact it’s hard to think of a recent Australian novel where the characters are so well realised.
The story unfolds in two alternating parts, both set in the fictional northwest West Australian town of Ransom and its neighbouring Aboriginal community of Yindi, both converging on the disappearance of a young Aboriginal girl known as Kuj.
Part one consists of the first-person narration of Maggot, Ransom’s garbage collector, hoarder and trader in abandoned goods.
Here we get to know the town, its peculiar economy, eccentric inhabitants and understandable obsession with cyclones.
Wright has excelled here in creating a portrait of a culture populated by odd bods and outcasts.
It’s a well-known path, but there’s real sinew in the world she builds and the way her characters resist the folksy quirkiness that so often leads such stories into wearying cuteness is superb.
The second part of the narrative is in the third person and concerns the journey of Annie, who has arrived in Ransom to conduct research into Aboriginal massacres at the same time as she is running away, like many of her fellow residents, from the train wreck of her personal life.
From Ransom she arrives in Yindi fired with up with the abstract righteousness of academic morality only to encounter her subjects’ ambivalence towards her cause.
As she grows into life at Yindi and becomes immersed in the logics of her new community, her old certainties shear off and her way of seeing the world begins to change.
Annie is a great character, not completely likable, but so well rendered we are compelled.
has worked as a teacher and linguist in northwest Western Australia and the experience is strongly evident.
Red Dirt Talking is wise in its understanding of cross-cultural transitions and the complex play of agency between Aboriginal and white Australia is a feature of the book.
Wright’s language is beautiful, often surprising and her knowledge is embedded in the way her characters’ speak. It’s a personal judgment, but for me this is one of those rare novels that actually changes the way you look at the world.
The Oldest the World intriguing but endeavour.
Its protagonist is Kate, who begins the novel as a book stacker in a library. There’s a broken and obsessional quality to her, almost as if she were an escapee from a Mary Gaitskill novel, a combination of low self-esteem and private rules. She meets a linguistics professor, the formidable E. E. Albert, in her library and is improbably identified as a student of outstanding potential. Some months later, having disappointed her mentor, she is sent on a mission of redemption: to find a dying Aboriginal woman and record her song. Like Annie, she finds the significance of her academic project diminishes in the desert where she falls under the spell of Adrian, the cranky maverick manager of the health clinic, who is more to Kate than he initially seems.
Like Annie, Kate undergoes a kind of transformation, yet there’s a disconnect between the strange, neurotic but interesting Song in is an flawed Kate of the opening and the more simpatico Kate who narrates her adventures in the desert. The connection between her past life and desert adventure also feels too contrived. The Oldest Song in the World is a novel whose risks haven’t quite paid off. That said, Woolfe is a writer with considerable powers of observation, and her intelligence and sensitivity show through despite the flawed container of this plot.
It’s often said in Australian publishing circles that political satire doesn’t sell. Perhaps it’s the legacy of our less than liberal defamation laws that have seen prime ministers and MPs building tennis courts and pools from their fragile reputations. Yet TV shows such as The Chaser have been enormous hits, so why doesn’t this interest translate to books? Compared with England with its excellent tradition of political satire from writers such as former MP Michael Dobbs, or the US with its insider satires such asJoe Klein’s Primary Colours or David Frum’s recent Patriots, there’s a weird gap in the Australian literature that might suggest local readers (or publishers), despite their cynicism, are prone to taking authority (and those who lust after it) too seriously.
The Marmalade Files (Fourth Estate, 320pp, $29.99) by seasoned political journalists Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis is therefore a welcome arrival. A roman a clef romp set in the nation’s capital, it’s a very enjoyable distorted potage of our recent political history, seasoned with some grotesque inventions.
Veteran political hack, Harry Dunkley is hungover after the depredations of the legendary Press Gallery MidWinter Ball. As he ponders the debatable wisdom of his life, the story of a lifetime lands in his lap. It’s a tale of defence ministers and their Chinese connections, mixed in with some dodgy union business, a scandal with the potential to force the by-election that will bring the Labor government of Martin Toohey down.
With the help of his brilliant transvestite intelligence analyst friend, Ben Gordon, Harry begins to unravel the story. The plot is solid with a neat twist, but what’s most enjoyable about The Marmalade Files is its satirical rendition of federal political culture and the awkward dance between public image and reality that troubles our democracy. Lewis and Uhlmann have taken their insider’s view of the political scene and refigured it for our entertainment. Ben Gordon, for instance, is not the only person to cop a cross-dressing in this book. It’s dark and teasing stuff, and you can’t help wondering if somewhere in the mischief are the kernels of those stories that can’t be reported but that every good journalist knows.
Sulari Gentill’s Paving the New Road (Pantera Press, 416pp $29.99) is a political thriller of a rather different kind. The fourth in her Rowland Sinclair series of period crime dramas, it takes Rowly and his bohemian crew to Munich under the Nazis, the goal being to prevent the leader of the New Guard, Eric Campbell, from meeting Adolf Hitler.
These amateur Australian spies get tangled up in more than they’ve bargained for and the people who have hired them prove less than helpful. The book is studded with encounters with real historical figures: Unity Mitford, Ernst Rohm, and Hermann Goering’s anti-Nazi brother Albert, to name some. In fact, the book is a little too studded with historical figures; it works to diminish the plausibility of the plot. Rowly, Edna, Clyde and Milton are sufficiently engaging to render so much contrived historical cel- ebrity unnecessary.
As such, it’s not the strongest of the Sinclair series, which are a reading pleasure on a par with other excellent Australian historical crime offerings such as Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher mysteries or Robert Gott’s William Power series. Still, for those who have already imbibed the others with relish, this will be a welcome opportunity to feed a laudable addiction.