August Review of Books: Lightweight Summer Reading

Several readers of this blog have remarked to me over the months about the number of books that I write about in these entries, and wondered where I find the time. Maybe I should confess to it being an occupational hazard: as a librarian, I’m surrounded by books, inundated with announcements of new publications, and plugged into the amazing resources of the internet for discovering new titles and old ones as well. At any rate, it’s a habit that was instilled in me at an early age: I can still remember the thrill of my seventh birthday when I was finally old enough to have my own library card, and didn’t have to have my mother accompany me down to the local public library in search of adventure. Mom was a great believer in libraries, as they eliminated both the expense of purchasing reading material and the necessity of dusting accumulated volumes on bookshelves. And while I certainly inherited her love of libraries, I unfortunately never shared her disinclination to amass books–much to the delight of today’s entrepreneurs at Amazon and Bookfinder, no doubt.

The few books that did line our home’s bookshelves were mostly British mystery novels of the Agatha Christie school, and the proverbial apple fell near the tree on that account. I’m a compulsive reader of crime fiction and have in recent years been enjoying the Australian contributions to the genre, not often discussed in these posts, though, for lack of Aboriginal content. Usually, when a non-indigenous writer brings Aboriginal themes into his work, they are pretty peripheral to the book’s content. Jon Cleary, for example, adds a good bit of local color to works like Pride’s Harvest (Morrow/HarperCollins, 1991), which deals with murder on a rural NSW cotton enterprise. He incorporates the local Aboriginal mob, one of whom commits suicide while in police custody. Stirrers from Canberra show up and rally the mob to a demonstration that breaks up a horse race with lethal results. But by and large, the Aboriginal people are as marginal to the story as the Japanese owners of the station. Peter Corris makes more of the misunderstandings and cultural gulf between the races in White Meat (Pan Books, 1981) as his detective-hero Cliff Hardy’s trail leads him through boxing rings in Newtown, into the Block in Redfern, and down to an Aboriginal community in LaPerouse. But in the end, the Aboriginal element is pretty thin in the mix of the novel’s plotting.

I was a little suspicious therefore when I read the reviews of Adrian Hyland’s new novel Diamond Dove (Text Publishing, 2006). A murder mystery narrated by a young Aboriginal woman and written by a middle-aged white man? Would it prove to be, as the jacket blurb promises, “a crime novel with a true larrikin spirit,” that “paints both black and white lives with a rare clarity, compassion and affection”? Well, yes, it turns out to be not far off that mark. It’s a lightweight romp, good reading for a summer’s vacation, a desert interlude for a day at the beach.

The heroine, Emily Tempest, the daughter of an Aboriginal woman and a white man, returns to Moonlight Downs, the community she (somewhat mysteriously) left as a teenager. Unfortunately, shortly after she comes back to the community, a mythical slice of Northern Territory Outback, the community’s tjilpi is murdered in what looks to be a sorcery killing, the community scatters from the site of the death, and Emily finds herself exiled to Bluebush.

It is in the depiction of Bluebush, yobbo capital of the Outback, that Hyland shines. His depiction of its churlish denizens, the competing local hotels, one worse than the other, and its dead-end boredom relieved only by drunken brawls, manages to be both sympathetic and very funny. It succeeds better than Hyland’s creation of Moonlight Downs, which is defined mostly by sadness, absence, memory, and regret. The plot turns on the conflict generated by Aboriginal land rights claims, and Emily’s attempts to re-integrate herself with her childhood friends and relatives comes off sincerely if somewhat mawkishly. It’s better than I hoped, and certainly worth a trip to your local library, if not to Angus & Robertson. 

Two other, more scholarly, volumes arrived on the new books shelf at the University library lately. Multiethnic Australia: its history and future by Celeste Lipow MacLeod (McFarland books, 2006) is a short historical review of immigration issues in Australia, from Captain Cook to the Cronulla riots. Written by an American fascinated with Australian multiculturalism, the book’s early chapter are devoted to British colonization; its later chapters focus on the years after World War II. Two middle chapter are devoted to Aboriginal issues, and include quick surveys of early contact on the frontier as well as later events like the Wave Hill walkoff, the Mabo case, and the Stolen Generation. It suffers from insubstantial treatment of any of these themes, but probably provides an acceptable introduction for potential tourists and travelers.

Stephen Spencer’s Race and Ethnicity: culture, identity and representation (Routledge, 2006) is a tertiary-level textbook with a central chapter devoted to a case study of indigenous Australians. The focus is on the fringe camps of Darwin and the problems of grog, the actions of the Howard government, and the emergence of the Larrakia nation as a political force in the Top End. The material needs to be considered in the context of the book’s attempt to present “international case studies from Australia, Malaysia, the Caribbean, Mexico, and the UK and examples of popular imagery that help to explain the more difficult elements of theory” and “the shifting meaning of ‘race’ and ethnicity … from Marxist views to post-colonialism.” Dry stuff that won’t mix well with the sands of either beach or desert, unfortunately. 

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