Epic, comic, hypnotic
Constable, 520pp, £16.99
If Carpentaria - the first wholly Aboriginal winner of Australia's Booker, the Miles Franklin Award - should ever grace the screen, the leading actors should be prepared to get very wet. Let that warn the reader also. Not literally in our case, though such a sprawling, flood-rampaged, mud-strewn epic certainly feels that way. "Thinking about the sea could turn a man mad."
Somehow both antediluvian and post-apocalyptic, the setting is the cyclone-prone town of Desperance in north-western Queensland, on the Gulf of Carpentaria - a "pristine vastness of the quiet mud plains, silent saltpans and still spinifex plains", where human life clings to the elements and the reader clings to what he thought was fiction. In her second novel, Alexis Wright, a member of the Waanyi nation of Carpentaria, is a fierce protector of story outside of the white tradition. Wright has stated that she wants Carpentaria to have an oral life, read aloud like Ulysses on Bloomsday. It is hypnotic and stark, exciting and anaesthetising. Quite a trip.
Nominally, it is about the struggle between the white majority and the Aboriginals and the rapacious mining company that plunders the town, but this is more a visionary book. Plot, dialogue, chronology, character progression, pretty much everything is disjointed or never taken up in the first place. Instead life is illusory, spirits roam for real, and much of the story takes place in "dreamtime". Characters turn up from nowhere. "A fish-faced old woman with eucalyptus leaves strewn through her wildly flowing, wet white hair sat in the boat." (And she is relatively normal.) They are dead, undead. They disappear again, "People who disappeared into the wilderness . . . because they did not want their histories contaminated with oppression under the white man's thumb." The real, the unreal and the God-only-knows coexist. This might be rather trying were it not salted with self-knowing humour: "Half the town claimed, on the gospel truth, they owned extraordinary gifts of perception enabling them to see ghosts as though it was the purchase of a new car."
The central family is, naturally enough, called Phantom. Its patriarch is Normal Phantom, the "fisherman's fisherman", and his queen-of-the-rubbish-dump wife is Angel Day, who leaves him for Mozzie Fishman, the spiritual guru with disciple zealots in a desert trail of old bangers: "pieces of modern art held together with rusty wire and leather belts or whatever it took", rather like the book itself.
Phantom leads the Westsiders from Pricklebush in ancient feud against the Eastsiders of Desperance: the "whitefella mob", "blue-eyed, blond, nervy, skinny, freckled souls" who don't know how they wound up in the middle of nowhere, just that they are tough and despise their less hardy southern Australian compatriots ("jellyfishes"), with their maps, laws and due process. There is murder, arson and endemic racism. More than a little Wild West, this landscape is filled with desperate characters - the pathetic policeman Truthful is decorated with a "broken Rolex watch", the hippie priest and the mayor, Bruiser (motto: "Hit first, talk later"), who bares his brown teeth like a "savage dog".
Norm has a friend called Elias Smith, a semi-hallucinatory amnesiac who came in from the sea. They don't talk much - proven by Elias not being noticeably less chatty when dead. His loyal pal Norm is compelled to transport Elias's inexplicably feather-light corpse to a sacred and virtually impenetrable mangrove swamp spot. Perhaps their common ground is silence.
One reviewer called Carpentaria a "tsunami" of a novel. And on Elias's final journey, where for a good 50 pages they and we are adrift in a groper hole, an abyss, a "spirit world, where the congregations of the great gropers journeying from the sky to the sea were gathered", and an ominous storm threatens to end everything, it can indeed seem that the only chance of any of us coming out alive is to hold on to a tree and pray.
Norm and Angel's son Will is an environmentalist who knows that "Life had no meaning in this new war on their country . . . This war with the mine had no rules." But while Will battles against capitalism he is also repelled by his father, who is "so blind" to the dangers in the status quo. Yet even the son, rooted in the modern world, cannot resist the power of his Aboriginal dreams. While Will is searching for his lost wife and mixed-race daughter, his father's voice haunts him. "Thousand upon thousand times from the voices of all times, through his father's voice". Will hears his words: "This is the story of . . ." And there it stops. What the story is, is perhaps less important than that the story is. This is a battle for the rights to the story.