Carpentaria, by Alexis Wright.
Carpentaria: A Novel, by Alexis Wright. Atria Books (2010), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 528 pages
An amazing epic novel about isolated communities near Carpentaria Bay on the northern coast of Australia: feuding Aboriginals, vindictive Anglos, and destructive employees of an international mine, as well as the sea, ancestors, birds, storms and the Great Serpent pulsing through the earth.
Alexis Wright is herself an Aboriginal and draws on her own traditions. I don’t know enough about those traditions to do more than note a few observations. The book opens with the Great Serpent moving over and under and through the region south of Carpentaria Bay, shaping it, depositing minerals in its ground and digging out its winding river channels. In a similar manner, Wright swirls together people, events, and words within circles that keep returning to key figures. Events move with the grace and terror of the Great Serpent with individuals guiding or passive in their wake. Mysticism in woven into sheer page-turning adventure. You don’t have to be an Aboriginal to resonant with the human distress, terror, and joy which this book conveys. At another level this is a richly human book, full of characters who think and feel.
Conflicts and connections permeate the book, but this is not a book about a neat fight between good and evil; black and white. The international mining company and its employees are the clearest villains because they are destroying the land. The whites of the settlement of Desperance or Uptown have power to harm those living in the Aboriginal settlements of West and East Pricklebush on either side of town. And Aboriginals themselves are anything but “noble savages,” and vicious actions occur between them.
One word of warning. Wright does not use standard linear English. One Australian reviewer says she “breaks every rule of grammar and syntax.” Her approach is not always easy reading, but the mood and stories she creates are unique and finely crafted. By the time Norm Phantom was crossing the sea with his friend Elias, I was as swept up in her writing as other readers report being. No longer was I even aware of the strangeness beyond her uncanny ability to create perfect but surprising word pairings.
For me Carpentaria is also a difficult book to review. Rather than attempt to be more detailed discussion myself, I would like to refer readers to the review of the book by whisperinggums. One of her commenters was particularly helpful with an example from other Aboriginal writing which confirmed my own sense of an author writing out of her own tradition but describing universal experiences.
I highly recommend Carpentaria for anyone willing to move into unknown worlds and thoughts. To read this book is to expand your mind, your heart, and your imagination.