Friday, July 17, 2009

Carpentaria by Alexis Wright

In the far north of Australia, in the Gulf of Carpentaria, the tiny town of Desperance doesn't appear on any map. That's because the name was officially changed to Masterton - but any road signs are destroyed as soon as they are erected. The white townfolk are set in their beliefs and don't care for change of any kind. Racism is as much a way of life for them as swatting mosquitos and sweating in the oppressive heat.

Aboriginal folk live in two camps on either side of the town proper, where the white folk dwell. Desperance is the closest town to a giant mine newly built by a multinational corporation. The issues of land rights, environmental concerns and employment opportunities are central to the story. The Aboriginal families have been feuding for 400 years; Norm Phantom and Joseph Midnight are the elder patriarchs of either side.

Norm's son, Will Phantom, is one of the main opponents of the mine and does what he can to sabotage its construction. He has also fallen in love with Joseph's grand-daughter, Hope, which causes his father to disown him. Will has to abandon Hope and their young son when mine officials are hot on his trail, but his dream is always to reunite with them. Meanwhile, the mining company resorts to dastardly deeds of retaliation.

Aboriginal author Wright was awarded the Miles Franklin Literary Award for this lyrical and sweeping saga. I found it a bit difficult to get into because the narrative is so very nonlinear, but by the time I was 100 pages in, I couldn't put it down.

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