Travers­ing the sands of time

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Al­though the Euro­pean pres­ence in Aus­tralia is now more than two cen­turies old it some­times seems the legacy of the past is more present with each pass­ing year. Whether in the hu­man cost for in­dige­nous Aus­tralians, the en­vi­ron­men­tal dev­as­ta­tion on the Great Bar­rier Reef and else­where, or sim­ply in the hos­til­ity to­wards those who ques­tion our as­sump­tions about our his­tory, Aus­tralian so­ci­ety has not come to terms with the dis­pos­ses­sion and vi­o­lence at its heart.

This im­pres­sive pair of sec­ond nov­els grap­ples head on with th­ese lega­cies. The first, Lia Hills’s The Cry­ing Place, opens in Syd­ney. Af­ter years of trav­el­ling, its nar­ra­tor, Saul, is try­ing to set­tle down when his life is up­ended by a phone call telling him his old­est friend, Jed, has killed him­self in Mel­bourne.

Dis­traught, Saul aban­dons his job and apart­ment and heads south. But in the board­ing house in which Jed had been liv­ing he only finds more ques­tions, the most sig­nif­i­cant of which is a pho­to­graph of an Abo­rig­i­nal woman who turns out to have been Jed’s girl­friend, Nara.

Armed with Nara’s photo Saul heads to Alice Springs and then fur­ther west to the Pit­jan­t­jat­jara com­mu­nity of Ininyingi. Along the way he meets var­i­ous others, all dis­lo­cated in their own way: an Abo­rig­i­nal kid on a bridge in Port Au­gusta who asks if he can come with Saul to Alice, “an echo of an­other lan­guage in the way he pro­nounced the name”; Ger­man-born Ziggy, with whom he be­gins a ten­ta­tive but in­tense re­la­tion­ship; an as­sort­ment of desert dwellers. But when he fi­nally ar­rives in Ininyingi and finds Nara, he only dis­cov­ers more ques­tions.

Ap­pro­pri­ately for a novel that is so much about move­ment, The Cry­ing Place is writ­ten in a choppy, bro­ken prose of short sen­tences and declar­a­tive state­ments. And al­though it oc­ca­sion­ally feels strained, at its best it re­calls some of the bro­ken ur­gency of the Tim Win­ton in Dirt Mu­sic. Yet the novel’s fas­ci­na­tion with move­ment and dis­lo­ca­tion is coun­ter­pointed by a de­sire to ex­plore the idea of con­nec­tion, of how mean­ing in­heres in the land­scape, con­nect­ing us to other ways of un­der­stand­ing and

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