Review: Carpentaria by Alexis Wright

I came to Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria soon after reading Voss by Patrick White. The two novels share certain elements. They both grapple with the idea of Australia, and find it lacking; both reckon with continent’s violent recent history; and both involve epic spiritual journeys. But where White pulled up short when he came to Indigenous Australia, Wright opens a portal to the philosophy and knowledge of the continent’s first peoples. Story comes pouring out.

Carpentaria, which won the Miles Franklin Prize in 2007, revolves around the town of Desperance, a once-upon-a-time port on the Gulf of Carpentaria now beholden to mining interests. Desperance is highly-segregated, its white folk live in Uptown, while its Indigenous inhabitants live in the Pricklebush on the town’s outskirts. Here beside the seagull-guarded rubbish dump local big man Normal Phantom has his home and his family (this is a book where names resonate with a plenitude of meanings). He spends most of his time fishing out on the Gulf’s waters.

Norm’s wife Angel Day is the queen of the Pricklebush. It is she that resurrects a four-hundred-year-old dispute that splits the town’s Indigenous people into two, Eastside and Westside. Norm and Angel’s seven kids try to make do in the town, except for Will, an idealist who is in hiding with the religious zealot Mozzie Fishman. He’s been disinherited for fraternising with the other side, and is widely feared by the white townsfolk for his activism against the mine. Meanwhile Elias Smith, a lost fisherman from the northern hemisphere finds his way into Desperance and causes a stir.

Writing it out like this makes Carpentaria sound straight forward, simple even; it is anything but. This is a book that begins with a little Aboriginal girl returning from church, then cuts to the ancient snake creator lying under the land, before landing on two Afghan cameleers bringing the seeds of the Pricklebush into town. Time is upside down and back to front: all times exist at once (although I think majority of the story wraps around the 2002 wet season), and the present seems to be skin on surface of Deep Time. The only way to describe it is to pile on metaphor after metaphor in the hope that something sticks: it is a dreamscape, a tapestry, a whirl of water and air like the cyclones that charge in from the Gulf and threaten the town.

At length something resembling a linear plot takes shape. Wright is least of all interested in action, cause and effect. She is far more interested in consciousness, history and ideas, whether it is the land’s, spirits’ or the people’s. Which means that this is a story that shifts constantly underneath you, changing depending on how you look at it.

When there are flashes of recognisable genres, they are a mish-mash. There are elements of fairytale, political thriller, the post-apocalyptic punk of Mad Max, a dash of magical realism. And that’s just the Western genres. I know only a little about the Dreaming, but the further I got into this book the more I started to think this is as close to a physical approximation as we might get.

With half my mind on the plot, the other half wondered just what this novel is doing. It is certainly a statement, unlike anything I’ve read before (except Wright’s follow-up novel The Swan Book). It is a statement of Aboriginality, about the extraordinarily ancient history that white people interrupted, about systems of knowledge, law, and belief that we’ve barely tried to understand. It is a cry against injustice and dispossession, which didn’t end with colonialism. It is a myth of creation and destruction. It is a love letter to country. It is a complication to simplistic ideas. This is ultimately a book that resists Western interpretation.

I feel I am doing a very poor job of describing the wonders of this book. It is a difficult read, but it is also gripping; something that just has to be experienced. The language comes on as a torrent: vernacular, poetic, Latin and Waanyi all competing. Take any moment when Wright turns her attention to the land and its spirits and creatures and you will see what I mean.

Recently I went to a “spoken essay” by Maria Tumarkin on feminism. In a far-reaching performance, she identified Alexis Wright’s writing as possessing a certain “wildness”, an element of not knowing what comes next, and I can’t think of a more accurate way of characterising Wright’s work. It is thrilling.

Carpentaria is published by Giramondo.

Gay rating: 0/5 – there’s no gay content in this book.

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