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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

Wright

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.

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