by Alexis Wright

Reviewed by Penelope McKimm


Published by Giramondo Publishing, 2006   |   519 pages

Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria is a powerful, new contribution to our collective memory. In the aboriginal view of history and spirituality, Dreaming is the process of creation, ancient and ongoing. Carpentaria, then, is an epic of Dreaming. The setting is the community of Desperance, an outpost in one of the farthest-flung parts of the Northern state of Queensland, struggling to justify its own existence. Normal Phantom, leader of the aboriginal community living on the outskirts to the West of the town, is the patriarch, consumed by the four-hundred year war against the rebellious settlement to the East. His son, Will, is more concerned with the here-and-now, waging a one-man war against the Gurfurrit mine and the white establishment of the town. Will’s preoccupation with the mine and his indifference to the ancient turf struggle lead to his estrangement from his father, but the forces of nature and the spirit world eventually lead the pair to an unexpected kind of reunion.

Departing from Anglo society’s view that history began in 1788, Wright takes the perspective that we are all, black and white, colonizers and colonized, caught up in something bigger – far bigger – than us. The novel’s teeming spirits are as present in the Fisherman’s Hotel and the Town Hall as they are in the elements and the natural world. Living in poverty on the edge of town, seen by white society as a tragedy, a waste, Phantom and the Pricklebush community nonetheless live in a world of richness and beauty, where storms are not something to be feared, as they are part of the guiding influence of the spirits. The Pricklebush are privy to an inheritance that is as plain as day but somehow invisible to the eyes of Anglo society, who cannot see past the poverty of the residents. It is a curious phenomenon that descendents of colonizers are terrified of the populations which were subjugated by their grandparents. Although there is rarely any real threat of violence, the realities of poverty, drug addiction and deaths in custody serve as a painful reminder of the darker truths of our existence, our inherited guilt. This fear ultimately leads to the deaths of three little boys, at the hands of a community so blinded by its fear that it is incapable of even noticing that its victims are children.

At times the novel is myth-like in its telling. The voice of the narration shimmers between vernacular and convention, giving the sense that the reader is listening to the story at the same time as seeing it unfold: “The old people would never go to the sea with a fisherman who had killed a groper. Everybody will tell you that. Better to let the groper live, or his ghost will live in the dreams of the fishermen who killed him, and when they go to sea, he will know what is in their heads, but he knows more about the sea than any fisherman so he will be able to steal their luck away. This was the only way the spirit of such a colossal fish would ever go back to the sea.” As in all myth, the forces of nature and the universe are fully realized, complex characters that have the ultimate word in the movement of the story, to the point where it sometimes seems that the human characters are mere pawns, their struggles incidental to the larger conflict played out between the storms and the droughts.

Time, the most powerful of all the forces, also brings out the mythic quality of the novel. Heavily tied to the shifting voices in the narration, it expands, contracts, stands still, gives us momentary glimpses into eternity. The first two chapters, for example, cover a generation’s worth of history, rich and heavy as plum-cake but never becoming dense. It is in these sections where the narration is most elusive and the story at its most dream-like, where Dreaming is the process of creation, the realm of the spirits. Being raised outside aboriginal spiritual tradition, I don’t think I truly understood the concept of the aboriginal Dreamtime before I read Carpentaria. Dreams and Dreaming are integral to the realization of the story and take their place as a force of universal creation: it is through their dreams that the characters find their destiny. The enigmatic Elias, a white man who understands this process, forms a vital thread between the main characters and their destinies, despite the fact that through most of the story he is dead. Through story, memory and dreams, Elias remains a powerful figure in the lives of Phantom and his family, and true to aboriginal spiritual tradition, his spirit becomes a force in the natural world after his death.

This universality is part of what makes Carpentaria so special, and such an important part of our ongoing, national story. Mainstream Australia’s blindness to its own history, a consequence of our brutal, unhealed scars of colonialism, is the greatest threat to our hopes of reconciliation. Stories like Carpentaria show a path away from our fear of memory, by showing memory and story as a force of destiny, healing and truth.

Originally from Australia, Penelope McKimm’s writing has appeared in the South Loop Review, the Susquehanna Review, and Punk Planet. She graduated from Columbia College Chicago and currently teaches English as a Second Language at the Instituto del Progreso Latino.

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