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