Fic­tion THE OLD­EST SONG IN THE WORLD SUE WOOLFE, 4TH ES­TATE, $29.99

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - FEBAOTUORK­ES -

Writer and teacher of writ­ing Sue Woolfe went to the desert for two weeks and stayed for a year and a half. She counts the ex­pe­ri­ence as one of the turn­ing points in her life, like fall­ing in love or be­com­ing a par­ent, and her fourth novel is richly im­bued with the colours and sounds that she found there and with the com­plex, other-worldly life of the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple who pop­u­late a re­mote set­tle­ment seven hours north of Alice Springs.

These are the most con­fi­dent, con­vinc­ing and mem­o­rable as­pects of the book, far stronger than the odd thread of a story that Woolfe weaves through them. Kate is drift­ing, still in thrall to an old love, still un­der­mined by a tragedy in which he may have been in­volved, when she im­presses a lec­turer in linguistic­s and makes an un­likely en­try to univer­sity as the woman’s pro­tégée. Her ap­par­ent prom­ise largely un­ful­filled, Kate is of­fered a chance to re­deem her­self by go­ing to the dis­tant desert community to record a song now known only to an old and dy­ing woman, po­ten­tially the old­est sur­viv­ing song in the world and one that is expected to yield im­por­tant ex­am­ples of an­cient gram­mar. Kate ac­cepts the chal­lenge be­cause she sus­pects that her old love, the sil­vereyed boy of her river­ine child­hood, is work­ing in the community.

The doubt about whether quixot­i­cally au­to­cratic Adrian is in­deed the Ian of her youth lingers through much of the book, but mean­while Adrian’s ad­vice on the man­ners re­quired in re­lat­ing to “his mob”, to­gether with his re­fusal to help her find the dy­ing woman – he has suf­fered along with the lo­cal peo­ple from aca­demic com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion and ex­ploita­tion – force Kate to ob­serve the lo­cal cus­toms, to lis­ten and to wait, to take in what she can of the Djemi­ranga lan­guage and earn a toe-hold in the community be­fore she goes about her busi­ness.

Cringe-mak­ing ex­am­ples of white in­flex­i­bil­ity, prej­u­dice and rude­ness, in­clud­ing a bare-faced at­tempt at a min­ing scam, are con­trasted with an ide­alised Abo­rig­i­nal community, with the in­ter­est and em­pa­thy of Adrian and other community work­ers and with Kate’s ed­u­ca­tion as she learns to see her own un­con­scious cul­tural bi­ases, her ig­no­rance of the strict rules of Abo­rig­i­nal so­ci­ety and the ef­fects of those rules in daily life.

Woolfe raises a host of con­tro­ver­sial ques­tions about the ways in which black and white cul­tures fail to con­nect, but her de­pic­tions of the desert in its many moods and man­i­fes­ta­tions are mag­i­cal: a pink river of sand re­flected on white “evening-gowned” gums; a mid­day red the in­ten­sity of vine-ripened back­yard to­ma­toes; earth that changes “be­tween apri­cot – gold – orange – rust – rus­set – crim­son – pink – mauve” as Kate walks across it; coun­try that sings and yearns for its chil­dren in a cli­max of in­tense beauty and emo­tion.

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