A&R Classics, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, Katharine Susannah Prichard, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Coonardoo’ by Katharine Susannah Prichard

Fiction – paperback; A&R Classics; 300 pages; 2012.

I came to Katharine Susannah Prichard’s 1929 novel Coonardoo with some trepidation. It’s an Australian classic, of course, and is billed as the first Australian novel to feature a relationship between a white man and an Aboriginal woman. It sparked public outrage on publication because of this. Almost a century later it still makes for uncomfortable reading — but not necessarily for the reasons that upset people in the past.

We all know that white men exploited Aboriginal women for their own sexual gratification. We also know that love doesn’t abide by class and race structures; that it is entirely normal for white people to fall in love with black people and vice versa. But the story is written through an entirely white lens and uses racist language that is unacceptable now.

And while I can see that Prichard’s heart is in the right place — she clearly wanted to pen a sympathetic portrait of Aboriginal people — it’s hard to ignore her objectification of their “exoticness”. Indeed, in her own foreword to the novel, Prichard reveals her ethnographer’s card, so to speak, by suggesting Aboriginal people were on the “lower rungs” of the “evolutional ladder”.

Bearing this in mind, and realising that she was writing in a different time and era and can’t be held to account for a mindset that is now, hopefully, clearly outdated, I found Coonardoo a compelling tale.

Life on a cattle station

It is a fascinating portrait of life on a cattle station in Western Australia’s remote northwest. It is also an insightful look at the social mores and manners of the early 20th century and the ways in which the long arm of colonisation impacted the lives of Aboriginal women.

I was gripped by its beautiful, filmic prose — Prichard’s descriptions of landscapes are gorgeously rich and vivid — and the tragic, heartbreaking arc of the storyline that demonstrates the weakness and cruelty in the hearts of even the most decent of human beings.

The moon, rising over the dark edge of the plains, was large as a dray-wheel, red-gold. It moved through a sky clear green with the glimmer of still water, extinguishing the stars, chasing them to the depths of the high dark. The stock-yards, sheds and windmills were clear in the moonlight; corrugated-iron roofs and fans of the windmill had a white radiance. Huts of the blacks, just visible, were low mounds against the earth near the creek; their camp-fires, red jewels in the distance. A subdued murmur and drift of singing, clicking of kylies [a light boomerang] came from them.

But despite the story being framed around an Aboriginal woman, the titular Coonardoo, who is trained from childhood to be the housekeeper at Wytaliba station, it is really about the station owner, Hugh Watt, who is roughly the same age. Hughie, or “Youie” as he is often called, played with Coonardoo as a child before being sent away to boarding school in Perth.

The narrative traces the arc of his life, from childhood to old age, showing his struggles and minor triumphs, the heartbreak of two failed relationships with white women, the grief that engulfs him after the death of his mother, Bess, the much-respected widow who ran the station single-handedly for decades, and his ongoing battles with his polygamist neighbour, Sam Geary, who boasts of the Aboriginal women he uses for his own sexual gratification.

And then there is the personal relationship he has with Coonardoo, a woman he loves but holds at a distance, even though it’s clear that both of them have feelings for one another.

“Coonardoo had been the one sure thing in his life when his mother went out of it. He had grasped her. She was a stake, something to hang on to. He had to remind himself of her dark skin and race. Hugh had never been able to think of Coonardoo as alien to himself. She was the old playmate; a force in the background of his life, silent and absolute. Something primitive, fundamental, nearer than he to the source of things: the well in the shadows.

It’s this denial of a joyful matrimonial partnership, of even allowing Coonardoo a voice, that turns Hugh bitter, a denial that manifests itself in one shocking outburst of brutality that puts paid to any future happiness.

A white man’s sorrow

At its most basic, Coonardoo is a tale about a white man’s sorrow and disappointment, about his failure to tame the land and to find happiness in family and romantic relationships, to be true to himself, but the narrative is underscored by deeper issues — hints of Aboriginal massacres, dispossession and exploitation.

“The blacks are like that, I reck’n,” Saul agreed. “They never kill for sport — only for food or vengeance. I’ve always treated ’em fair and honest, let their women alone — and never had any trouble with ’em. […] And the blacks has plenty of reason for vengeance, Youie. Thirty years I’ve been in this country, and there’s things I’ve seen… No black ever did to a white man what white men have done to the blacks.”

And while Hugh’s attitude towards the Aboriginals who work on his land could be said to be kind and sympathetic by the standards of the time in which it was written, it’s hard not to wince at the patronising nature of much of what he says and does today. The following statement, for instance, is racist (and sexist), which makes for uncomfortable reading:

“But these people are not servants,” Hugh told her, “not in the ordinary way. We don’t pay them, except in food, tobacco, clothing. Treat them generously, feed them well, give them a bit of pain-killer or a dose of castor oil when they’ve got a bingee ache, and they’ll do anything in the world for you. But you must never work them too hard — specially the gins [derogatory term for an Aboriginal woman]. They’re not made for hard work, can’t stand it. Look at their little hands. Coonardoo’s — I’ve never seen any woman with as pretty little hands as Coonardoo’s.”

Prichard, unfortunately, is hampered by her inability to truly know what it was like to be indigenous. She’s constrained by her own prejudices, privilege and experiences. In today’s language, we would say this was not her story to tell.

But for all its failings, Coonardoo is an important book both in terms of the Australian literary canon and Australian history. I am glad to have made its acquaintance.

Please also see Lisa’s thoughtful and considered response to this novel, for she has taken the time to put it into context by reading other people’s opinions about it.

Because the author spent a large chunk of her life in Western Australia (she moved to Greenmount, on the edge of the Darling Scarp, in 1920, where she lived until her death in 1969, aged 85), this book qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

This is also my 26th book for #AWW2021. 

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Gabriel Bergmoser, Harper Collins, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021, TBR 21

‘The Hunted’ by Gabriel Bergmoser

Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 284 pages; 2020.

Terrifying. Horrifying. Disturbing. All these words spring to mind when trying to sum up Gabriel Bergmoser’s high-octane suspense novel The Hunted.

Set somewhere in the Australian outback (there are no place names in this book), it’s a scary mix of Wolf Creek meets Wake in Fright with a dash of Fear is the Rider and The Dead Heart thrown in for good measure.

I raced through it with my heart in my throat one moment and feeling like I was going to gag the next. Yes, it’s an incredibly visceral read and not always pleasant because it features some pretty gruesome scenes. You have been warned.

In the UK, the book is published by Faber & Faber

Service station standoff

The story focuses on Frank, a service station owner, who runs his business single-handedly on a little-used highway in the middle of nowhere.

His teenage granddaughter, Allie, whom he barely knows, is staying with him for a few weeks. Allie has been having problems at school, so her parents figured taking her out of her normal city environment might help “fix her attitude”. Yet the pair rarely see each other because Frank spends long hours at the servo and Allie sleeps late.

But one morning their quiet existence is shattered when a car pulls into the service station and a badly injured, blood-soaked woman falls out. She’s being pursued by a mob who seemingly want to kill her — and they’ve done a pretty good job of nearly doing that so far.

What happens next is an adrenaline-fuelled high stakes drama involving Frank, Allie and a group of customers who band together to protect the almost-dying woman from further danger, while they themselves get caught up in a terrifying standoff that occurs on Frank’s property involving crazed men, guns and explosions.

Woman on the run

To escalate the tension even further in this super-fast-paced novel, the author includes a second narrative thread, which goes back in time to tell the story of Maggie, the badly injured woman.

In chapters headed “Then”, which alternate with others headed “Now”, we learn how Maggie hooks up with a fellow backpacker on the road to experience the “real” Australia, only to land in an isolated country town where everything is not what it seems.

What Maggie discovers in that town triggers a massive road chase in which she becomes “the hunted” of the title. I can’t really reveal more than that for fear of ruining the plot, but let’s just say it’s pretty grim…

Too much violence

As much as I enjoyed the page-turning suspense of this novel (I ate it up in a day unable to tear my eyes away), I had issues with some of the violence in The Hunted, because it often felt gratuitous. On more than one occasion, I felt nauseous reading visceral descriptions of what happens to human bodies when they’re beaten or shot at.

Making one of the lead characters female doesn’t alleviate the misogyny in this book either. I felt sickened by the men in this novel and the ways in which they got off on doing horrible things to women.

Yes, I know it’s fiction and I know it’s supposed to be a thrilling horror story, but I question the author’s motivations: what is the point of the violence and the misogyny? If it was written in the 1970s or 1980s it might be understandable, but this is the 21st century  — surely our attitudes have moved on and we don’t need to be titillated by this kind of content?

According to the book’s publishers, a film adaptation of The Hunted is currently being developed in a joint production between two US companies. It certainly has all those qualities that mainstream Hollywood loves: car chases, guns, explosions — and death. I don’t think I could bare to watch it…

About the author¹: Gabriel Bergmoser is an award-winning Melbourne-based author and playwright. He won the prestigious Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award in 2015, was nominated for the 2017 Kenneth Branagh Award for New Drama Writing and went on to win several awards at the 2017 VDL One Act Play Festival circuit. In 2016, his first young adult novel, Boone Shepard, was shortlisted for the Readings Young Adult Prize. (1. Source: Harper Collins Australia website.)

Where to buy: Widely available in most territories.

This is my 4th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here.

It is also my 6th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Gail Jones, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Our Shadows’ by Gail Jones

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 320 pages; 2020.

Love and loss, the goldfields of Kalgoorlie, growing up in outback Australia, and strained relationships between sisters all feature heavily in Gail Jones’ latest novel Our Shadows.

Outback setting

This gently nuanced novel is largely set in the outback gold mining town of Kalgoorlie, about 600km east of Perth, in Western Australia.

Against this dramatic landscape, we follow the lives of two sisters, Nell and Frances, who are raised by their grandparents following the death of their mother sometime in the 1980s. (Their father flees — whether from shock or grief or a refusal to be responsible for his two daughters, we don’t know — and is never seen again.)

It charts the closeness of their childhood, united in orphanhood and by a love of art, reading and a desire to visit the sea. (The print of Japanese artist Hokusai’s The Great Wave, part of which is reproduced on the book’s cover, plays a key role in their childhood fantasy to one day paddle in the ocean.)

But when the book opens, the sisters, vastly different in temperament and personality, are now 30-something adults living in Sydney and they are estranged. Frances, the introverted one, is a widow, her husband having died from mesothelioma, an excruciating lung disease, and her days are now spent visiting her grandmother, Else, who has dementia and lives in a nursing home.

The plot, which is is split into two parts, largely focuses on the sisters’ relationship, how it splintered and whether it can be repaired. It looks at the history of their parents (how they met, fell in love and got married) and their maternal grandparents (who, bowed by grief, had to raise their daughter’s children) to create a beguiling portrait of three generations of the one family.

The second part of the novel looks at Frances’ return to Kalgoorlie to rediscover her roots and find out more about the father she never knew.

Interleaved through this story of an outback family is another story — that of the real-life Irishman, Paddy Hannan, who was the first to discover gold in Kalgoorlie in 1893 and is largely known as the founder of the town.

An unexpected treat

Admittedly I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with this author. I have read four of Gail Jones’ books now and fallen in love with some titles (Five Bells and Sixty Lights), felt lukewarm about others (A Guide to Berlin) and not liked very much at all (Sorry), so I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one. I didn’t have to worry. This was an unexpected treat.

I read Our Shadows on the seven-hour train ride back from Kalgoorlie, having visited for a few days earlier this month, and it certainly captured the feeling of this outback gold mining town with its super-wide streets (so that camel trains could turn around), rich colonial architecture and mining infrastructure, including the super pit gold mine, which is referenced a lot in the story (see my pictures below).

The Super Pit was visible from space. Everyone said so. She remembered the day of the inauguration, the mayor, the mining officials, the politicians in their grey suits, the way her class had to stand in the sun, squinting in lines on a dais, and sing the national anthem. As a child she imagined herself in space with a small rocket strapped to her back; she would look down and see the Super Pit reduced to a dark blot. It reassured her to imagine in this way, lofty and unconcerned.

There’s always something about reading a book set in a place you have visited (or are visiting) that makes the story resonate more, and that was certainly the case with this one.

As ever, Jones’ work is subtle, her writing polished and poetic, and she is an expert at nuance, expertly capturing moods, expressions and the interconnectedness between people that makes life so rich and varied. Her descriptions of people, places and time periods are evocative and her characters all-too-human, flawed but believable.

Our Shadows is not a fast-paced novel and, as such, it is not one to race through. Instead, it’s one to linger over, to savour the language and the feelings the story evokes.

This is my 22nd — and final — book for #AWW2020.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Garry Disher, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Bitter Wash Road’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 336 pages; 2013.

Bitter Wash Road (published as Hell to Pay in the US) by Garry Disher is the first in a trilogy known as “the Paul Hirschhausen novels”. It has been described as the “gold standard for Australian noir” — and I’d have to agree. I haven’t enjoyed a distinctively Australian crime novel as good as this for a while.

Set in South Australia’s wheatbelt, three hours north of Adelaide, the hot, dry landscape is as much a character as the city policeman “Hirsch” who has been exiled to a single-officer police station.

It shares certain traits with Jane Harper’s best-selling The Dry — which arguably put Australian crime novels on the international map in recent times — but predates it by three years and is far more accomplished, evocative and complex.

Whistleblower exiled to a small town

The story goes something like this. As a whistleblower, reporting on corrupt colleagues, Constable Paul “Hirsch” Hirschhausen has had his promising city career cut short. Now, exiled in Tiverton, a tiny speck of a town in the wheatbelt, he deals with low-level crime.

As if adjusting to life alone in a strange town isn’t enough, his new colleagues in the nearest big town, where his boss is based, hate and despise him, and he is constantly on alert because he knows there are certain people who would rather he just disappeared.

In the opening chapter, when he’s called out to investigate gunshots on the isolated Bitter Wash Road, Hirsch realises he’s completely exposed. If anyone is going to kill him, this is the perfect place to set up an ambush. But who could it be? The very police officers who should be providing him with back up? Or the pair of fugitive killers who had last been seen in town, heading for Longreach, more than 2,000km away, in a distinctive black Chrysler?

He’s wrong on both counts, but it sets up the mood for the rest of the novel, for Hirsch is a policeman whose integrity and honesty is challenged at almost every turn, a man who fears for his life, who worries about his city-based parents who have been threatened in the past, and struggles to fit in to a community where everyone knows everyone else’s business but tend to keep themselves to themselves.

UK edition

Complex murder mystery

Once the character of Hirsch has been established, the book gets into the nitty-gritty of a complex murder investigation in which a teenage girl is found dead, lying facedown in a ditch by the side of the road, a victim of a suspected hit-and-run.

The investigation is far from straight forward and before long Hirsch realises that there are vested interests and hidden agendas at work. As an outsider in an isolated country town, getting answers out of anyone proves increasingly difficult. What are people hiding? And does it have anything to do with his role as a police whistleblower?

Bitter Wash Road, with its multiple plot lines, focuses on a disturbing murder that highlights how no police force (or station) is immune from corruption and vested interests. It also shows how the closing of ranks against an outsider can obscure the pursuit of justice — with devastating consequences.

Intelligent crime novels don’t come much better than this — and I’m looking forward to reading the rest in the series, which comprises Peace (2019) and Consolation (2020).

Bitter Wash Road was shortlisted for Best Crime Novel at the 2014 Ned Kelly Awards and won the German Crime Prize in 2016. It is widely available in all territories.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2017, Book review, Chatto & Windus, Fiction, general, historical fiction, Joy Rhoades, Publisher, Setting

‘The Woolgrower’s Companion’ by Joy Rhoades

The Woolgrower's Companion by Joy Rhodes

Fiction –  hardcover; Chatto & Windus; 416 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Joy Rhodes’ The Woolgrower’s Companion is a sweeping saga set in the Australian outback during the Second World War. The story is best described as one woman’s struggle to save the family farm against the odds. Admittedly, this is not my normal cup of tea, but this is the kind of romantic story you can lose yourself in, especially if you’re looking for something easy and enjoyable to read on holiday.

Life on a farm

It’s the 1940s and Kate Dowd co-owns a large sheep station with her father, a returned soldier from the First World War. Her mother died a couple of years ago, so Kate runs the household  (cooking, cleaning, gardening), managing Daisy, the young Aboriginal maid, and helping Harry, the 10 year old nephew of Mr Grimes, the farm manager.

She’s married, but her husband Jack is in the Army and is stuck in Sydney training soldiers. They never see each other.

When her father begins behaving oddly — losing his memory, not wanting to get out of bed, losing his temper — it’s up to Kate to keep things together: to make sure the men who live and work on the farm are paid, including two Italian prisoners of war (POW) who have been employed for their horsemanship; that routine maintenance is being carried out; that the sheep are being looked after properly; and that things keep ticking over despite the fact the region is plagued by drought and water is in short supply.

This new level of involvement in the management of the farm makes Kate realise there’s something not quite right: her father owes a massive amount of money to the bank and if the bills aren’t paid soon there’s a chance the property and all the livestock will be repossessed.

Multiple plot lines

Most of the plot revolves around Kate’s attempts to fend off the bank. But there are subsidiary plots revolving around the POWs (will she or won’t she become romantically involved with Luca, who helps in the garden, for instance), an ongoing hunt for a yellow sapphire that Kate’s father bought then hid in a place so secret he can no longer remember where he put it, and a dilemma over what to do when the help falls pregnant.

The book explores the strict social codes of the time as well as the racism, which makes it socially unacceptable for Kate to not only work on the farm but to form a friendship with a young aboriginal person. It examines the legacy of the First World War on those who fought on the battlefields of Europe and tells the little known story of how Italian POWs were shipped from British POW camps in India and sent to work on Australian farms (to replace those farmers who were fighting abroad).  And it’s a fascinating portrait of life on the land in the harsh Australian outback.

It’s an evocative tale from another era, written in simple, often lyrical prose, where the landscape is as much a part of the story as the well drawn characters that inhabit it. This subtle and perceptive story largely draws on the experiences of the author’s paternal grandmother, a fifth generation sheep farmer from northern NSW, which lends it a ring of authenticity.

For me The Woolgrower’s Companion sometimes felt a bit slow going and the storyline slightly cliched, but it’s a good historical novel and will appeal to a broad audience.

Earlier this week Joy Rhoades took part in Triple Choice Tuesday. To see which three books she recommends, please visit this post.

This is my seventh book for #AWW2017.

1001 books, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Patrick White, Publisher, Read Along, Setting, Vintage

‘Voss’ by Patrick White

Voss by Patrick White
1994 edition
Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 464 pages; 1994.

First published in 1957, Patrick White’s Voss went on to win the inaugural Miles Franklin Literary Award that same year. Some 15 years later White received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the only Australian to ever win the accolade, earning him a formidable presence in the Australian literary canon.

His reputation as a fine but difficult writer often puts people off trying his work (myself included), but every time I read a White novel (I’ve read four now, three of which are reviewed on my Patrick White page) I come away from the experience wondering what I was scared of. Yes, his books are hard work, and yes, the prose sometimes feel convoluted and old-fashioned. But he’s a terrific storyteller and everything about his work — his characters, his descriptions of people and places and atmospheres, his ability to capture people’s emotions and motivations and innermost thoughts — is masterful. You don’t just read a Patrick White novel, you become immersed in it.

The same could be said of Voss, the bulk of which I read in March as part of a Patrick White read along but then put aside (with just 30 pages to go) because work got in the way. I finished those last few pages on the weekend, which explains the long wait for a review I had planned to write two months ago.

An outback romance

Voss by Patrick White
2011 edition
Set in 19th century Australia, Voss charts the journey of a German naturalist, Johann Ulrich Voss, keen to explore inland Australia. It is largely based on the exploits of Ludwig Leichhardt, a legendary Prussian explorer, who disappeared in 1848 while midway through an ambitious expedition to cross the continent from east to west. To this day, no one quite knows what happened to him.

Voss not only tells the story of that fateful expedition, it also tells the (fictional) story of the woman he left behind. Laura Trevelyn is one of those Victorian women destined to be a spinster all her life. She’s plain and intelligent and doesn’t really fit in. No one much likes her, because she’s smart and outspoken at a time when women should be seen but not heard.

The pair meet through Laura’s uncle, who is the patron of the expedition, and while they do not form an immediate attraction, there is something about Voss that intrigues Laura. When he embarks on his adventure with a party of settlers, including a ticket of leave holder, and two aboriginal guides, the pair conduct a romance via correspondence. Later, they communicate via shared “visions” — with Voss in the outback and Laura in Sydney — which gives the novel an other-worldly feel that riffs on the theme of spiritual connection with the land.

Two stories in one

The story is composed of two intertwined narrative threads; one that charts Voss’s journey inland and the pitfalls he must address, including drought, floods, starvation and near mutiny by his party; and another that follows Laura’s life in Sydney, where she “adopts” the orphaned child of a servant and later succumbs to an almost deadly fever that renders her not quite sane.

Both threads are highly detailed, with little evading White’s forensic eye. This makes for dense text, the kind that is so rich and multi-layered it can occasionally feel impenetrable. But it’s worth persevering, for his prose glitters with jewels waiting to be unearthed and the descriptions of the landscape and the expedition’s deeds are gloriously astute and evocative.

Next morning, while the lamps of friendship hovered touchingly in the dew and darkness, and naked voices offered parting advice, the company began to move northward, with the intention of crossing New England. It was a good season, and the land continued remarkably green, or greyish-green, or blue-grey, the blue of smoke or distance. These were sparkling, jingling days, in which sleek horses, blundering cattle, even the sour-heeled mules had no immediate cause for regret. Men shouted to their mates, their voices whipping the blue air, or else were silent, smiling to themselves, dozing in their well-greased saddles under the yellow sun, as they rubbed forward in a body, over open country, or in Indian file, through the bush. At this stage they were still in love with one another. It could not have been otherwise in that radiance of light. The very stirrup-irons were singing of personal hopes.

Of course, when the expedition finds itself in trouble and Voss is no longer seen as an angel but a living, breathing devil, the novel moves into darker, more tormented territory. White is not afraid to plunge his characters into life or death situations and to test their mettle and moral character. This makes for heightened reading, but occasionally the narrative plods along, perhaps mirroring the expedition’s own dull slog towards a destination that seems impossible to reach.

I found myself enjoying Laura’s story more than Voss’s, but even her narrative sometimes got bogged down in extraneous detail.

A powerful novel

There’s a lot to say about this powerful novel. From its richly evocative language to its clever structure, it deals with so many dual themes — good versus evil, intellect versus emotion, spirituality versus reason, Europeans versus indigenous populations, the tamed land versus the outback — that I could never possibly cover them all here.

In Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die it is described as “both a love story and an adventure story, yet it is neither […] but the most striking feature of this novel is its discordance, its unnavigable strangeness”.

While I can’t say I loved Voss, reading it was a fascinating experience. I devoured most of its 400-plus pages on a weekend getaway to the coast, including the 90 minute train ride there and back, because it’s the kind of novel you need to lose yourself in; you need to get to grips with the pacing, the characters and the dense prose style and you can’t do that if, like me, you usually read books in bursts of 30 minutes or so. I’m very glad I took the plunge to read it.

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Coal Creek’ by Alex Miller

Coal-Creek

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 304 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Coal Creek, published in the UK earlier this year, is typical of what I have come to expect from Alex Miller’s writing: quietly understated prose, slowly paced narratives, characters who are deep thinkers and themes which are universal.

Outback life

This story, set in the Queensland outback in the 1950s, unfolds gently but culminates in violence.

The narrator, Bobby Blue (short for Robert Blewitt), is a simple man with a strong moral compass, who finds it difficult to express himself so usually says nothing — occasionally to his disadvantage. He left school as a 10-year-old (“my mother never did get the chance to teach me nothing”) and became a stockman with his father and two others. Later, after the death of his father, he decides to work for the police, putting his horsemanship and knowledge of the bush to good use, tracking thieves and stolen stock and helping to settle the odd property dispute.

His boss, Constable Collins, is an ex-soldier who survived World War Two’s New Guinea campaign. He grew up on the coast but has accepted a bush posting, dragging his wife and daughters with him. He’s a bit out of his depth and is struggling to adjust to the scrub — he’s no natural bushman, which means he is increasingly reliant on Bobby’s skill and knowledge, although he is too arrogant to admit it.

There’s not much crime to investigate apart from the odd family feud and a bit of cattle rustling. Indeed, the previous constable used to turn a blind eye to much of this because he preferred to let people sort things out for themselves, but Collins is different: he only ever sees things in black and white, and believes his job is to police the community in the strictest possible sense. So, when an old aboriginal woman claims that Ben Tobin, an old school friend of Bobby’s, has hit Deeds, his aboriginal girlfriend, Collins is ready to throw the book at him — despite a lack of evidence.

And so Miller sets up his key theme — that of the stranger in a strange land (Collins) doing a job for which he’s ill-equipped — and pits him against the seemingly naïve and silent local (Bobby), who knows the landscape intimately and feels, if not at one with it, certainly a part of it.

First person narrative

The narrative, told entirely from Bobby’s point of view, is written in the voice of a simple, uneducated man — complete with grammatical errors —  who desperately misses his late mother and is starved of female company until Collins’ wife, Esme, encourages him to share meals with her family. Through this, Bobby develops a close friendship with the Collins’ 12-year-old daughter, Irie, who teaches him to read. But while these were simpler times and Bobby seems strangely asexual, this relationship between a man and a prepubescent girl threatens to destroy everything that Bobby holds dear.

And while I would describe Coal Creek as a proper slow burner — it took me a long time to get into — the story has a funny way of sneaking up on you and then holding on. This is largely due to the strong voice (and the wonderful storytelling), which puts you in the head of a narrator who is relating the story as it happened to him in the past (remember, things happen slowly in the bush). And because he often indicates that he wished he’d done or said something differently, a sense of doom, melancholia and regret begins to build. There’s lot of foreshadowing so that you know the narrative is going to culminate in an unhappy ending or dramatic event.

But what I liked most about this novel is the ways in which the landscape dominates the entire story; it’s beauty and strangeness, the way in which it makes man very small and insignificant, is a metaphor for the conflict between Bobby and Collins — that to survive in this land you need to understand it, or at least respect it.

We are only men. When you live as we had lived our lives in the scrubs you know you are not the boss of nothing and there is the sky and the eagles and the scrubs going on forever into them great stone escarpments. No man knows himself to be the boss of that.

Essentially Coal Creek is a love story — not only Bobby’s love for Irie, but of his mother and of the landscape and way of life. It’s also a very good examination of loyalty, trust, male friendship and the ties which bind mothers and sons. And it’s an eye-opening look at black and white relations, and the way in which remote rural areas are policed.

It is very much typical Alex Miller fare: richly evocative, intelligent and unsentimental, tethered to a strong sense of place and peopled by well-drawn characters. Don’t let the slow pace turn you off: this is one of the most absorbing stories I’ve read all year.