Traversing the sands of time
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