Everyone needs a good book as a travelling companion. Most people may not see Alexis Wright’s airport-sized novel, Carpentaria (over 500 pages), as the type of text you’d want to pack in your swag. However, Wright’s work provides such an insightful view of the magical Gulf Savannah country from an indigenous and historical perspective, that makes it more illuminating than a bagful of conventional guide books.

Carpentaria, a novel by Alexis Wright.
Carpentaria, a novel by Alexis Wright.

Almost by accident, I found myself enmeshed in Alexis Wright’s epic novel Carpentaria, while travelling through the very country – the Gulf Savannah region of tropical North Queensland – that Wright so devastatingly describes.

I did not intend to bring the book. We did not intend to visit the region. Our original destination, although fuzzy, was way out west, or to the red centre; but the weather intervened. The roads to Innamincka were rained out, and so we headed north instead, thousands of kilometres straight up north towards the tropics and the mighty Gulf of Carpentaria.

Dawn on the Gulf of Carpentaria. Photo by Jim McCool.
Dawn on the Gulf of Carpentaria. Photo by Jim McCool.

The book was packed as a last minute addition. It had been given as a present some years ago, partially read out of obligation, and then exiled to the shelf; too hard to grasp and understand. Now I found it stashed in the trailer and it was welcome; it looked thick and rich enough to sustain me through an epic slow camping adventure into the heart of Australia.

In the evenings after work, I welcomed Wright and her world, her warm rich soup of Phantoms and Pricklebush, the fictional town of Desperance, and the intertwining sagas of family and country, of murder and cruelty and struggle and prejudice, of river and ocean and place. When picking up the book again, now with more time and patience, I found myself welcomed by Wright’s use of a poem by Seamus Heaney as an introduction – an introduction I had not noted before.

The first words got polluted
Like river water in the morning
Flowing with the dirt
Of blurbs and the front pages.
My only drink is meaning from the deep brain,
What the birds and the grass and the stones drink.
Let everything flow
Up to the four elements,
Up to water and earth and fire and air.

Heaney, S., The First Words, in Wright, A., Carpentaria, Giramondo Publishing, 2011, p.7.

Heaney’s words helped to give me the right mindset to tackle what many readers find is a difficult text. It’s certainly not a ‘conventional’ novel. Characters come and go, linger and flicker and disappear; the plot builds up and overflows, streams through the channels of discourse like wet season floods through the coastal swamps. Travelling through the Gulf and through the small towns of Normanton, Karumba and on to Croydon, Wright’s words helped me to see the country with an entirely different perspective from that of the traditional tourist guides. Here was a magical landscape of river and swamp and endless plain, but with a brutal history and with conflicts that were very much still in play. And yet Carpentaria is much, much, more than that, embracing the concept of what geologists call ‘deep time’ , and a total immersion right into the country in passages of writing which break free from the pages and take off on their own voyages of poetry.

Claypans breathed like skin, and you could feel it, right inside the marrow of your bones. The old people said it was the world stirring itself, right down to the sea. Sometimes, in Desperance, everyone heard the drying mud crack in the vast claypans. You could hear the ground groaning, splitting its epidermis into channels of deep cuts all across the ground. It looked like a fisherman’s net, except it was red brown, and it trapped whatever was down below from breaking through to the surface. It made you think that whatever it was living down underneath your feet, was much bigger than you, and that gave them old clan folk real power. They said it was a good reason to keep on living right where they were. Keep it right. Everyone had to keep fighting those old spirit wars, on either side of that, Got nothing, going nowhere neither, Uptown .

Wright, A., Carpentaria, Giramondo Publishing, 2011, p. 242

In Karumba, especially, I welcomed the knowledge of country and history that Wright was willing to share. Here in Karumba was a distillation of many of the conflicts that still wrack the landscapes and peoples of Australia. Here was a popular little tourist town, with its Barramundi and chips, its Crocodile-spotting excursions and its packed-to-the-rafters caravan parks; yet here also was a busy port, home to a lucrative prawning fleet and the notorious Animal bar (name-checked by Wright).

Karuma on the Gulf of Carpentaria. On one side a caravan park and in the distance an ore-processing plant.
Karuma on the Gulf of Carpentaria. On one side a caravan park and in the distance an ore-processing plant.

Yet Karumba is also home to a major industrial installation. Ore from the mining town of Mt. Isa is sent across the ancient landscape through a giant pipeline and is processed and shipped from a huge plant right on the Gulf at Karumba. This plant, which is situated right next to a caravan park, rumbles and roars noisily throughout the day. Smoke from the plant drifts across the town, depending on the prevailing winds, and at times, it stinks. This pipeline is a central character in Wright’s Carpentaria and effluent from its toxic influence warps and twists both plot and protagonists, mirroring the ways in which indigenous groups are still today divided, bought and sold by the money and power of big corporations.

The experience of reading Carpentaria certainly gave me fresh insights into the landscapes and peoples, the cruel history, the on-going conflicts of the region; and that’s how the book should be approached: as a reading experience. Don’t try and squeeze Carpentaria into some dry western concept of what a novel should be. Just like the Irish writer Joseph O’Connor says of James Joyce’s Ulysses “it isn’t asking to be understood, just experienced.”

The bush was still with the late afternoon lull from the wind, yet it still felt as though it was full of wild women slowly walking back and forth as they watched his progress on the beach. He needed to be heard over the silence. It was as though the sheer marvellous miracle of bringing human speech though silence had overwhelmed him. He talked and talked, telling the most fantastic of stories about himself. When the wind returned at half past ten at night, it was surprised to find him still talking after six hours, and it jumped at the chance of revenge. Sand flew up from the beach like little dust storms and wrapped around his fallen words as though it was picking up the rubbish. The sand cut into his face like attacking ants, forcing him to close his eyes, yet this did not stop him. On and on he continued, talking to the Gods, who had stopped ordering fate just to listen about the strange town called Desperance.

Wright, A., 2011, p.179.

More info on Carpentaria

Alexis Wright herself on ‘The Big Book About Small Town Australia‘.

Carpentaria is available directly from Giramondo Publishing.

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