Song Of The Crocodile is another unsettling and unpredictable novel from Australia’s latest flourishing of Aboriginal writing, the first book by Yuwaalaraay writer Nardi Simpson.
The novel begins with a bird’s-eye (or perhaps a spirit’s-eye) view of the land, flying across the plains inland to Darnmoor, a town that calls itself the “gateway to happiness”. It is indeed a gateway, but these days not to anything remotely resembling that feeling. In town we meet Margaret Lighting, a nurse at the local hospital whose Black patients are allowed only on the hospital’s back porch, and who is fired soon after for stealing. She lives in the Campgrounds by the river on the town’s outskirts with her daughter Cecilia and Cecilia’s husband Tom Billymil. When Tom is run over (deliberately, accidentally – the novel sees little distinction) on the same night that Celie gives birth to their daughter Mili, the women have to find a new livelihood, starting a washing business, and in doing so encroaching into the white world of the town.
Interwoven with the story of Margaret’s family is Jakybird, an old man called into space to the crystal star Murrudhi Gindamalaa, or what Europeans call Venus. There he’ll wait for others to arrive, and when the time comes lead his people in a great bora, or ceremony. In some ways it is a simple plot, a history of a family and place spanning half a dozen generations, but I was unprepared for the despairing places it took me. Characters whose deaths would be inciting incidents in other stories are dispatched of almost offhand, mirroring the warped logic of colonisation. Still it was only towards the end that I grasped it would not have a happy ending, at least for the living.
Song Of The Crocodile takes place on Yuwaalaraay lands in what is currently north west New South Wales. Darnmoor and the twin rivers of Mangamanga and Malugali seem to be invented places, but they could also correspond to the Narran River and the lake it flows into. Interestingly the crocodile of the title is no longer found in the region, but fossils confirm the giant reptiles once did swim in the area’s waterways. In other ways Darnmoor is all of Australia, its invented status the same conjuring act of European settlement on stolen lands. At the end of the novel Darnmoor’s white inhabitants gather to “celebrate the slaughter now known as Darnmoor Founders Day”, the same celebrations carried out big and small across the country on January 26 and on other days throughout the year. “They actually believe their own fairytale,” a character wonders incredulously. While the time is never specified, the story appears to start in the 1950s or ’60s, just before the arrival of washing machines in the country town, when segregation is no longer law but enforced in other more insidious ways.
While some parts of the story are familiar, recognisable in the writings of other Aboriginal women writers like Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko and Tara June Winch, Simpson takes her story in a specific and unfamiliar direction informed by the history of this country. Like books by those writers, Song Of The Crocodile is about the legacies of colonisation – massacres, murder, racism, marginalisation, transgenerational trauma, substance abuse, domestic violence – but it’s solution is bleaker. Colonisation can’t be undone, it suggests, rather it must be washed away.
This is also a story of survival and resistance. Even though their lives are made difficult, the family’s love for each other and the land, and their joy in their presence, is ever present. Like the interwoven story of Jakybird, characters in the novel weave culture into their everyday lives – stories, language and lore – demonstrating how culture is passed on when the linkages are under siege from all sides. The novel itself plays a similar role, introducing Yuwaalaraay lore and culture to new audiences.
The writing is an often thrilling mix of the mundane and the fantastical. Even as I was drawn to the stranger passages set in the spirit world, I was delighted by the attention Simpson pays to things often neglected, such as the women’s work in the washing shed, those “rituals that wake a sleeping house” or the wonderfully simple yet too often overlocked connections between people, animals and land:
A moth, grey and lighter than air… It touched lightly the pink blooms that were scattered around that edge of the town. The moth floated down upon new blooms, gathering pollen and, within the yellow powder, keys that unlocked the great connectedness. As it collected pollen from petal and bud, and flew to gather even more, secrets cascaded from the scales of its wings. These were intercepted by dragonflies and placed between the hairs of their legs and transported further upwards into the atmosphere. When high enough, the dragonfly would let go, and the keys would drift, to be transferred throughout that place by the waft of air rippling from the wings of galahs. Every key found a hole and turned a lock. With every opening, the great connectedness of burruguu flowed throughout every living thing.
Ending on an uncertain note, Song Of The Crocodile leaves us with the hope that Australia can rediscover those connections before it is too late.
Gay rating: not gay