Carpentaria, by Alexis Wright

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The ancestral serpent, a creature larger than storm clouds, came down from the stars, laden with its own creative enormity. It moved graciously — if you had been watching with the eyes of a bird hovering in the sky far above the ground. Looking down at the serpent’s wet body, glistening from the ancient sunlight, long before man was a creature who could contemplate the next moment in time. It came down those billions of years ago, to crawl on its heavy belly, all around the wet clay soils in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Those are the opening sentences of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and fair warning they are. If you are uncomfortable with giving yourself up to a book in which spirits, like the serpent, drive or influence the action, it probably isn’t worth your while to take on the remaining 438 pages. If you are willing to enter that world, there is a remarkable journey ahead of you.

Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf — she knows the spirits, the land, the sea, the native people and the intruders that form the story of this novel. It won Australia’s primary fiction prize, the Miles Franklin, in 2007, was published in the United Kingdom last year and finally became available to Canadian readers a month ago. (That’s fairly typical of how long we Canadians have to wait to read outstanding Australian fiction, but I’ll save that for my next post.)

Wright sets up the dialectical tension that will dominate the book and its characters a few pages later when she introduces Desperance, “a town intended to serve as a port for the shipping trade for the hinterland of Northern Australia”:

In one moment, during a Wet season early in the last century, the town lost its harbour waters when the river simply decided to change course, to bypass it by several kilometres. Just like that. Now the waterless port survives with more or less nothing to do. Its citizens continue to engage in a dialogue with themselves passed down the generations, on why the town should continue to exist.

Desperance may be the empty, pointless geographical centre of the book but it is surrounded by teeming action. To the west and east, there is the Pricklebush, home to the indigenous people, some of whom venture into town, some of whom avoid it. To the north, across the tidal mudflats, is the sea, home to its own collections of spirits and opportunities. To the south is the desert, again with its own set of creatures. And looming ominously over this all is the Gurfirrit mine, the latest foreign intrustion into this world. If Desperance represents the hopeless, empty past, the mine represents the equally hopeless, but threatening, future.

The powerful natural forces all have a human representative or two in the current reality of the book. Probably the most dominant is Normal Phantom of the Westside of the Pricklebush. Formerly the area’s best fisherman, he now is an amazing taxidermist who restores fish to life:

When nobody believed the story spread by Norm Phantom about not being the maker of his work, he kept his beliefs to himself. These were the fascinating secrets of the fishroom. Secretly, Norm remained convinced that others helped in such exquisite creations, something much more powerful than himself. A supernatural master artist who created miracles, a dalliance of God consuming the room as an experimental studio, a type of expose for life in the decaying world, where the air smelt like a beach.

Norm avoids Desperance and always has. Some time back, that led to a split in the Aboriginal community and a number of his neighbors headed across town to create the Eastside. Their leader is Joseph Midnight and they make periodic attempts to get along with Uptown (the white community); some even work in the mine.

Elias Smith is the human who emerges from the sea, dragging his fishing skiff across the mudflats. He becomes a feature of Desperance for a while but is obviously out of his element — eventually he drags his boat and self back to sea.

Mozzie Fishman (the last name is ironic — he hates the sea) is the human of the desert. A religious zealot, he leads a convoy of ancient vehicles and followers around the desert, periodically showing up in Desperance as yet another disruptive force.

There is also a queen (at least in her own mind) that “rules” over these four: Angel Day, the mother of Norm’s seven children, she left some time ago to take up with Joseph on the Eastside and has had a number of offspring by him.

Desperance itself, the empty centre, has equally empty characters — a hapless mayor, Stan Bruiser, and an equally hapless policeman, Truthful. In the book (as in Wright’s vision of the life she is describing), they serve mainly as punishing foils to the indigenous people.

As the opening sentences indicate, there is a similar cast of spiritual characters — not just the river serpent, but giant gropers in the sea and the winds, trees and blowing sand of the desert. They are joined by the spirits of the dead, departed or missing. Just as Robert Alexie in Porcupines and China Dolls (see my previous post) periodically makes his spirits concrete characters who drive the book, Wright has no hesitation in frequently making these forces real.

The result is an exceptional book, an exploration of a culture that values the land and its spirits every bit as much as its day to day reality — another feature it shares with Porcupines and China Dolls. As a Caucasian, raised as a Christian, I won’t pretend to understand it. I do appreciate the opportunity, provided by both books, to at least begin to appreciate it.

That is one of the reasons why I’ve chosen to overlap these two reviews. While the nations of Alexis Wright and Robert Alexie may be geographically, quite literally, a world apart, they have much in common. And sometimes it is very helpful for those of us who are trying to comprehend the world we live in to look at the Antipodes to help achieve that understanding. I think Carpentaria does that for Canadians; equally, I think Porcupines and China Dolls (if you can figure out how to get it) would be valuable reading for Australians.

(I understand that Alexis Wright is coming to Canada this fall for the author festivals in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto — perhaps some others as well. Canadian readers might want to prepare by reading the book in advance. I don’t know if there are any plans for Robert Alexie, whose book was just released — it would be fascinating to see the two authors on the same platform.)

As promised in my previous post, this is the second of three related posts. Novels about indigenous people are not the only ones that show similarities in Australian and Canadian fiction. I have been fascinated for some years about that similarity — in a few days, I’ll complete this mini-series with some thoughts about why it exists and some examples that I hope visitors to this blog will find useful.

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12 Responses to “Carpentaria, by Alexis Wright”

  1. Isabel Says:

    Great review. I need to add this book to my list.

    Here’s another one to try.

    http://booksandotherstuff.blogspot.com/2008/06/books-book-review-bone-people-keri.html

    It should be available in your neck of the woods.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Isabel. I have read this novel — although it was some years ago. I recommend the link you provided to others who may not be aware of it.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    This is fascinating, that opening paragraph sounds excellent actually and not at all offputting.

    The characters sound as if they carry a weight of symbolism with them, is that right? Do they convince as people or are they more archetypes?

    Also, one thing I disliked in The Englishman’s Boy which I just finished, was I thought it slightly overromanticised the native peoples, giving them a wisdom I’m not sure any humans really have whatever their ethnicity may be. Is there an issue with romanticisation here do you think at all?

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Symbolism, yes; romanticism, no. Where Wright does push it is that her characters blur the line between the real and spiritual worlds. I found it helpful to keep reminding myself that the author comes from an oral storytelling tradition (as does Alexie in the previous post) and needed to be granted the same licence that one grants an oral narrator. Suspending your notion of reality is one of those things. When you do that, they all become “characters”, an amalgam of the person and their spiritual counterparts. That’s where I think it differs from the stylized portrayal in The Englishman’s Boy. And for harsh, non-romantic reality in portrayal of indigenous people, Porcupines and China Dolls is incredible.

    Max, you have also given me an excuse to include something I should have put in the original post. I found Carpentaria a more difficult read than I should have because I didn’t adapt my reading approach to the oral storytelling tradition. I tend to read in long stretches of four or five hours — and that is not the way to read this book. It is important to remember that long oral sagas were told nightly over a period of days, even weeks, allowing time for the listeners to contemplate what they had heard. I suspect that reading this book in 30 to 60 minute chunks and then letting the subconscious go to work on each part would have produced a more satisfying read for me.

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Now that is useful to know Kevin, information on how to approach a work is valuable stuff.

    Anyway, I’m reassured, I do like the sound of this one, Porcupines intrigued me less but the quality perhaps should attract me even where the subject matter doesn’t.

    Approach it like oral history, I guess like I’d read The Illiad or Beowulf, both of which can struggle if read as a novel.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Your classics example is perfect. And one thing that should have tipped me off is that Wright’s chapters tend to be self-contained stories of about 25 pages — once I did remind myself of the tradition (which was more than halfway through the book), I found that reading one, perhaps two, and then moving on to something else (usually bed) was an excellent approach.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Your comments have provoked another thought with me — this time on a significant difference between Alexie’s and Wright’s books. While both contain elements of topicality and pantheism, the former is predominant in Alexie’s book, the latter in Wright’s. Your perceptive reading of my reviews does indicate that probably means Carpentaria travels better — while the topicality of Alexie is important to me because of where I live, I do think it would have less of an impact for you.

  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That makes sense Kevin, the topicality didn’t speak to me so much, the pantheism though promises a voice I might not otherwise hear, a door of perception I might not otherwise walk through.

    The Alexie still sounds excellent, but it also sounds profoundly depressing and much more local in its focus, that said I’m certainly not ruling out reading it, I’m just less immediately tempted.

  9. dovegreyreader Says:

    You definitely make me want to go back to Carpentaria Kevin. It was hyped up here and then seemed to sink without trace when published (or was that just me not paying attention). I started then stopped last year, the book seemed to require a particular concentration that eluded me at the time, but I’m intrigued by the links you make between Australian and Canadian literature so now I can’t resist. You might also be pleased to know that finally, years after everyone else, I am having my Anne Michaels Fugitive Pieces moment :-)

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    DGR: I started Carpentaria midst the hype last summer as well, struggle with the first 70 pages and put it aside — it was when I read Alexie’s book that I decided it was time to give it another go and this time I quite enjoyed and appreciated it. I do think it wants to be read in one-hour bits however — some of the storylines and characters become overwhelming otherwise.

    If you check back here for my “essay” in a few days, you’ll find that Helen Garner’s The Spare Room (loved your interview), a book that I didn’t particularly like but others certainly raved about, is one of the books where I have found a Canadian counterpart.

    I very much enjoyed Fugitive Pieces — I am much more ambivalent about her new book, The Winter Vault.

  11. matttodd Says:

    I love that this book is being published overseas. It gives me hope that Australian literature has a future yet!

    Have you read Wright’s other novel, Plains of Promise? It’s much shorter than Carpentaria, but it deals with some pretty meaty topics – many of which are relevant in Australian society.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Australian fiction definitely has a future — if you haven’t already read it, check out the next post to this one on the blog which is my little essay on similarities between Canadian and Australian fiction. I haven’t read Plains of Promise yet — thought I might try it when Wright is in Canada next fall.

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