Alexis Wright’s 516 page tome left me with mixed feelings. It is like a complex wine with different notes that come at different times. Not altogether unenjoyable, far from it, but also not straightforward in any simple way. This is, perhaps, Wright’s aim. She is an Australian indigenous writer whose style mimics oral storytelling more than the linear narratives of Western culture. The book is mesmerizing in the way it moves backwards and forwards through time, along different narrative threads and around places and characters. At the same time, this free movement can produce a dizzying effect for readers more accustomed to point-A-to-point-b-in-a-straight-line logic. At times the narrative was absolutely mesmerizing, but at others times it wanders and I found it hard to pay attention to what was going on. In some ways, I feel like I walked through a desert (somewhat fitting given the novel’s setting in Queensland region of Australia – a claypan desert along the island’s far north), only to find myself at the other end feeling like I’ve missed numerous sights along the way.
The novel is centered on the town of Desperance, a white settler town about to come into money and the political spotlight because of the buried mineral resources that an international mining firm wants to exploit. However, these issues are ultimately secondary to the two different groups of Aboriginal peoples: the Westsiders led by Norm Phantom and the Eastsiders led by Joseph Midnight. These factions have been at war for 400 years, but the mine’s presence has significantly altered the landscape. Will Phantom, Norm’s son, has become an eco-terrorist of sorts, sabotaging the mine in defense of indigenous land rights. The novel explores the difficult postcolonial terrain of contemporary Australia as the white settlers continually grumble against the “blackfellas” who live on the outskirts of town, complaining that they stand in the way of progress. I really enjoyed this aspect of the novel as I normally read within Canadian literature, so it was interesting to see another settler-invader nation questioned by an indigenous writer. In the second half of the novel, a number of shocking racist crimes are committed and Wright manages to hit readers right in the gut. I finished the book feeling (again) like European settlers were and are always invaders on someone else’s land.
In terms of the reading experience, the first half of the novel is the most diffuse. The narrative shape-shifts like the snake that lies underneath the indigenous world of the novel. It winds its own way across the page, following an internal logic that is alien to (Canadian) readers. The second half of the novel becomes much more narrative-focused as though the first half had to set up the full context before the action could happen. In hindsight, I think I enjoyed this novel more than I realized. Getting through the first section was tough, but rewarding by the end.
A weird thought just occurred to me: this book spends a lot of time at sea. Norm is a master fisherman and he spends lengthy periods at sea. This is the second large novel about the sea that I’ve read in the last month. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for more fortuitous parallels.
Overall, I would recommend this book to readers who have the time to spend on a 516 page novel. For those who prefer more compact narratives, steering clear is probably the best course of action.
Wright, Alexis. Carpentaria. Toronto: Atria Books, 2009. Print.