Wright is one of Australia’s most celebrated writers, and an Aboriginal activist. Her book depicts life of these indigenous Australians via the story of a community of people in the coastal town of Desperance in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Specifically, she introduces us to Norm Phantom & family of the Westend, his rival Joseph Midnight of the Eastend, and the vague "white men" from the neighboring Uptown who threaten the land, traditions, and heritage of the Aboriginal people.
It's a lengthy tome - clocking in a 516 pages - and although I received my copy in mid-March, I just finished it last week after taking it with my on our trip to Puerto Rico.
Truth be told, I had trouble getting into the story. It's a mystical narrative, starting with the creation of the rivers and flow of the tides explained by an ancient serpent that slithered over the land, creating the serpent-shaped water flows and taking huge breaths that cause the tides.
The writing is beautiful, with rich descriptors, like this passage about one of the main characters:
"He possessed such an enormous voice, the pitch of it could reverberate up and down the spinal cord, damage the central nervous system, and afterwards vibrate straight up the road to the town and hit the bell so hard, it would start ringing its ear piercing peal." (p. 97)
But I found the early pages confusing, with odd characters whose stories seemed truncated and disconnected. It wasn't until the second third of the book that a central narrative really presented itself, and it was at this point that I got pulled into this complicated community where legends and ghosts live side-by-side, including fisherman Norm Phantom who straddles life between his family and the sea, and the mysterious Elias Smith, who seemingly straddles life between Heaven and Earth (or, the spiritual and physical realms).
There is a constant juxtaposition of traditional Aboriginal life in Desperance with the modern "conveniences" of Uptown: Norm has a taxidermy shop where he preserves fish (and legends) for all time (yet loves his transistor radio that brings news of changes to the ozone layer). His wife Angel preserves things as well: found objects from the town dump. Son Will protests the land grab and business practices of the neighboring mine. The entire family seems intent on resisting advancement and maintaining life as they know it.
Elias is the one character who seeks change, and he suffers a dark fate. Norm continued to fish, while "Elias had become misguided like a fool into the politics of Uptown. He was far too busy to go fishing, too busy for the sea. He abandoned the lot, everything he knew, just for Uptown."
In all, it's an interesting, thought-provoking story if you can stick with it. And Wright does have a unique - at times beautiful, at times complicated - writing style. But maybe not a light, quick beach read :)