A dreamlike novel from Australian aboriginal author Wright of a dreamtime interrupted as Australian native peoples meet industrial civilization.
If you can call it civilization, that is. Perched on the infernally hot salt flats of northern Queensland, at some distance from a sluggish river full of mud and “serpents and fish in the monsoon season,” is a waterless port town named Desperance, the center of Wright’s stately epic. Around Desperance—waterless so long that no one can remember when it stood near water—snakes a ring of aboriginal encampments, each a little more desperate than the next. In one lives a suggestively named old man, Normal Phantom, wise but somewhat feckless, given to making pronouncements in the voice of “a presidential Captain Hook.” Inside another camp are the Eastend boys, ne’er-do-wells deluxe, who have their difficulties with the neighbors. After all, as the narrator quietly observes, this idea that people should live in harmony “was a policy designed by the invader’s governments,” and not really anything inherent in human nature. Among these “ ‘edge’ people, all of the blackfella mob living with quiet breathing in higgily-piggerly, rubbish-dump trash shacks,” rivalries unfold, difficulties ensue and untoward events multiply. Imagine Gabriel García Márquez’s fictional town Macondo set on dustier ground and with considerably more magic—and aboriginal mythology—worked into the magical realism, and you have some approximation of Wright’s fluent tale, in which not much happens but a large cast of memorable characters are allowed to show themselves: a Bible-thumper, a psychopath whose motto is “Hit first, talk later,” some quirky types and some just plain normal folk. Wright, a member of the Waanyi people, turns in stretches of mixed-language patois that is a pleasure but sometimes a challenge to follow (“Big cyclone coming, boy, everybody barrba, jayi, yurrngi-jbangka—you better come with us”) as the tale winds its way to the end.
A latter-day epic that speaks, lyrically, to the realities and aspirations of aboriginal life.