CARPENTARIA, GIRAMONDO PUBLISHING, NSW. AUSTRALIA
AUTHOR: ALEXIS WRIGHT
REVIEWED BY DR. CATHIE DUNSFORD
Alexis Wright is a Word Carver whose tattoo, in Carpentaria, recalls ancient ancestral spirit journeys. Not since the bone people took the world by storm and won its Maori author Keri Hulme [Kai Tahu] the coveted Booker Prize, deservedly, has a book of this magnitude appeared from indigenous Australian/Aotearoan authors that could captivate its readers with the power of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria. Wright’s first novel, Plains of Promise, was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. Let’s hope that Carpentaria wins it, and many more accolades. Alexis Wright is already known as “one of Australia’s finest indigenous writers”. Her work can stand alongside all their best writers.
Carpentaria is one of those delicious novels that work their way into your mind, heart, body and soul, just as the bone people did. You are taken on a vast epic journey peopled with eccentric and yet strangely familiar characters, because underneath their eccentricities, lie elements of all of us. Alexis Wright is a word carver. Her words get under our skin, seep through our veins. She urges the landscape to come alive, sing to us. She lets us see this earth through the eyes of its Aboriginal inhabitants. The land becomes a character in the novel, one that is worth loving and worth fighting for.
Yet when Will Phantom and his mates do fight for the land, destroying some of the global mining company’s assets, he is seen as an outcast, a criminal by the ruling forces of corporate crime and even by some of those close to him, including his father, Norm Phantom. An epic struggle between father and son, involving the grandson, takes place with redemptive overtones by the end of the novel. The Phantom family have done well to stay alive in this system of colonial oppression. After all, they, and all the other Aboriginal tangata whenua, people of the land, were supposed to be killed off by colonisation or made invisible through an enforced blood transfusion by now.
Hence their name – Phantom. They are the phantom people- those who have survived despite the odds. Wright never glorifies this struggle but she shows the huge price that the indigenous tangata whenua of Australia have paid to remain invisible, to resist or give up fighting against colonisation, when the odds seemed stacked against them. In a country where the current Prime Minister, John Howard, still cannot issue an apology, let alone compensation, for Australia’s appalling record of genocide against its indigenous Aboriginal people, the name Phantom is symbolic of this family and of how the country has treated its indigenous people- as phantoms- those they hope will go away, disappear from sight. Those who are still kept at the margins of society, begging for the crumbs, when once they tracked this land with skill and survived entirely on their own resources.
Yet Carpentaria resists the temptation to become a political treatise. This is indeed talkstory, korero, storytelling at its very best, as critics have noted: “Wright’s storytelling is operatic and surreal: a blend of myth and scripture, politics and farce. The novel teems with extraordinary characters – the outcast saviour Elias Smith, the religious zealot Mozzie Fishman, the murderous mayor Bruiser, the moth-ridden Captain Nicoli Finn, the activist Will Phantom, and above all, the rulers of the family, the queen of the rubbish dump and the fish-embalming king of time, Angel Day and Normal Phantom – figures of such an immense imagining, they stand out like giants in this storm-swept world.”
Normal Phantom? In this world, it is normal to be seen/unseen as a phantom. The perspective depends upon the viewer and where that person lives in the small coastal town of Desperance in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The Phantoms have a stake in the Westend Pricklebush people and have to battle with Joseph Midnight’s renegade Eastend mob, the pakeha [white] bureaucrats of the snooty Uptown mob and also the corporate criminals who run the devouring Gurfurrit mine and would kill to keep their dream of riches alive. Surviving, while being a phantom, is not an easy life. But, like the First Nation Ghost Riders of Great Turtle Island, who follow in the footsteps of their ancestors each year to mark the genocide and massacre at Wounded Knee, survive they do, against all odds.
In the violence always lurking just below the surface, three Aboriginal boys die in custody. They are symbolic of the many hundreds of indigenous people who die in custody in police cells and prisons throughout the world. Nearly two hundred in Britain over the past few decades, without a single case ever resulting in a conviction against a police officer. Their deaths become part of a bizarre opera of events but by the end of the novel we feel that maybe there is change in the air, that redemptive forces could be at work in this wind-swept and storm-ravaged world.
The theme of resistance, which runs throughout this novel like an underground stream, just below the surface, is empowered by Wright with a terrific and fiercely intelligent sense of humour. Philosophical, spiritual and political debates are seen in unique ways and always, this sense of wit and rebellious energy seethe beneath the surface, and every now and again erupt like the Kiluaea Crater on Hawai’i, sending out ropes of lava to lace the land before this fiery energy sizzles into the sea. We are taken into a visionary landscape, a visionary world, where we are so captivated by the characters and the sheer power of the land, that we feel we are drawn into the world of Carpentaria, which is a symbolic mirror image of the struggles and joys and utter eccentricity of the outside world when viewed by those living on the fringes. In doing this, the author allows the reader to be turned inside out, to see life from other perspectives, and few readers who have not already confronted such a world will be the same after reading this powerful saga.
No review or summary could ever capture the magic and power of Alexis Wright’s mastery as a word carver. She carves people and landscape with consummate skill, so that the words cut deep into our skins, like a tattoo, and are forever working their way into our hearts and minds and bodies, long after the book is put down. A tattoo or moko is worn with pride because it traces the ancestral journeys of our pasts like tracks in the sand and each inscription tells multiple stories of our ancestral knowledge and journeys. Carpentaria tattoos into us an epic saga, a symphony of sounds and lyrics that take us deep into our souls and those of the characters, that asks vital questions about our survival on this earth and about the survival of its original indigenous inhabitants.
Alexis Wright sings the land alive in all its glorious and ferocious detail with some of the most powerful descriptions ever seen in Australian fiction. This is an inner knowledge of the land, which requires living close to the earth, and it is a song line urging its survival and the survival of its people. Just as the land is mined, so the people are mined and then discarded to become the phantom people roaming the earth without soul or purpose. Throughout this epic journey, Wright restores a sense of mana, pride, and a sense of inner power and knowledge to her people, to all of us. She restores the power of dreaming, the power of imagination, that can take us beyond mere survival and petty battles to a place of inner imagining, a place that can never be trampled or taken away, a place that has always existed inside the indigenous tangata whenua of Australia, a place of Dreaming.
I first met Alexis Wright when we were both keynote speakers at the Asia and Pacific Writers Conference in Melbourne, November 2005. She talked about her work and read to us from her novel in progress, Carpentaria. The audience included some of the best writers in the Asia and Pacific region, some of them with print runs of half a million copies – a dream for many of us in the Pacific region. But all were entranced by her reading. I can only hope that Giramondo Publishing takes this book to the Frankfurt Bookfair and offers translation rights globally, because this book is one, like The Bone People, which will captivate people world-wide. I hope that it wins as many awards as possible because it deserves to and because this is one way more readers get to experience our indigenous word-carving and find out about the taonga, sacred treasures, of indigenous writing of the Pacific. The power of Alexis Wright’s word carving reminds me on an ancient Maori proverb: Kotahi na Turahiri ka horu te moana: One of Turahiri’s men alone could cause the sea to roar. Turahiri was a woman ancestor of the Rongo-whaka-ata tribe. Kia kaha, Alexis!
I urge all of you reading this review to order a copy of Carpenteria now from your local bookstore or from the publishers: http://www.giramondopublishing.com Post more reviews of this book on the Asia-Pacific Writers Network website or anywhere you can. Get the word out. Please feel free to reproduce or quote from this review at random. Carpentaria is a powerful reading experience that all lovers of good books will relish. Mahalo, Alexis Wright, for having the vision to carve this novel from the inscribed landscape of Carpentaria, of your own heart and soul. Mahalo, Giramondo Publishing, for honouring her work with such a beautifully produced book. Kia kaha!
Dr. Cathie Koa Dunsford [Nga Puhi Maori/Hawai’ian & Croatian ancestry] is author of 20 books in print and translation in USA, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Turkey, including the Cowrie novel series featuring strong wahine toa & tangata whenua from the Pacific region http://www.spinifexpress.com.au