‘The White Earth’ by Andrew McGahan

whiteearthA fictionalised location within the vast farming region of the Darling Downs in southeast Queensland is the setting of Andrew McGahan’s 2005 Miles Franklin award-winning novel, The White Earth.

Opening in 1992, drought has decimated landscape, crops and livestock alike. Farmers struggle to make ends meet on once fertile plains. The death of eight year-old William’s father in an accident on their farm leaves him and his mother destitute – until unknown great-uncle John McIvor appears on the scene.

McIvor lives in the decrepit Kuran House, the original station house of the area. From its vantage point in the foothills of the Bunyas, the Whites, a wealthy and powerful family of land squatters, ruled over a huge tract of land in the 19th and early years of the 20th centuries.

But the White family has long gone, the station lands broken up into smaller holdings and the house itself fallen into almost uninhabitable condition. The son of the former station manager, McIvor had spent a lifetime gaining ownership of what was left of the extensive property, sacrificing his marriage and family life in the process.

Into this move William and his neurasthenic and wholly dysfunctional mother, who sees an opportunity in securing the inheritance of the property through her son.

Settlement, land ownership and politics

McIvor himself, bitter and deeply cynical, is desperately looking for an heir who will carry on running what is left of Kuran. He puts Will through a series of ‘tests’ to check the mettle of the boy. He also indoctrinates the eight year-old with reactionary One Nation politics: the federal government is debating true ownership of land squatted by white settlers in the 19th century and the forced removal of the indigenous population. McIvor is anything but happy about such discussion.

Novelist McGahan deftly weaves the history of Kuran since white settlement with the contemporary storyline of a young boy who struggles to understand all that is expected from him in the adult world.

Corruption, murder and violence twist and turn the narrative through the grab for land in the middle 19th century to contemporary Queensland and Australian politics of the day. Skewed perspectives, selfish intent, brooding jealousies, hidden secrets, political machinations all combine in an intense narrative that crashes and burns towards an inevitable climax.

Indigenous rights

And pervading the darker recesses of the drought-stricken property is an ethereal spirit, one of malice and revenge. McIvor, with no sense of irony, talks of his own spiritual connection with the land whilst refusing to recognise the claim by displaced indigenous survivors of its history, its importance to them. It’s Will, lost and delirious after three days without water, who experiences the hallucinatory visions of demons and horrors of the mythical yet allegorical bunyip. His discovery of human bones in the dried-up waterhole finally reveals a terrible truth of 70 years before.

The White Earth is a powerful, sweeping story of history and land, of the people who settle it, farm it, own it, kill for it, run away from it. Few understand it, yet it is the land that shapes their lives.

But it is also an allegory of Australia, of first settlement and the grab for land. Not understanding the nature of its nomadic inhabitants or the land itself, the European concept of fences and ownership took precedence over any claims by ‘savages’.

The White Earth is not an agit-prop linear narrative based purely on the real. Instead, it weaves in and out of history, from a 1920s society party to a One Nation political rally, from a younger taciturn John McIvor working the farm to the more ethereal captured moments of dreamlike events of both past and present.

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‘The Lighthouse’ by Alison Moore

Layout 1For some reason beyond my understanding, The Lighthouse was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize – ahead of such longlisted luminaries as Andre Brink (Philida) and Michael Frayn (Skios) and heavyweights Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis who failed to pass the first hurdle in the quest to collect one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards.

The debut novel from short story writer Alison Moore, The Lighthouse is a slight tale of Futh, an ordinary, imminently forgettable man, who goes on a walking tour of Germany. His wife, Angela, has recently left him – a repeat of his father’s abandonment. Both women left through debilitating boredom and a sense of sparse ordinariness pervades the telling of the story.

Some critics have celebrated the poignancy and melancholia of Futh’s desperation and deep-seated sadness. Yet he is so self-obsessed he fails to understand – or even see – the seemingly minor domestic events unfolding around him. Instead, Futh struggles with the newness of his walking boots and constantly manages to miss breakfast, lunch and dinner as he loses himself both literally in the German countryside and in memories from different periods of his life.

A man of little imagination or ambition, Futh, like his father before him, can bore the pants off anyone who is unfortunate to be cornered. Unlike his father, Futh has little interest in the opposite sex. Yet it is his disconnectedness that leads to the (short) novel’s final and inevitable denouement.

It is in the small details that Alison Moore that can appeal – yet the reality for me is that as a result the novel is too domestic and too slow-paced. Futh is dull, his walking holiday is dull (there’s more talk about blistered feet than any joy of glimpses of the Rhine) and many of his memories, conveying the boredom of unhappy relationships, are by default, dull.

As they say, if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it probably is a duck. So if it looks dull and sounds dull, it probably is dull. As ditch water, to be precise.

‘Oscar & Lucinda’ by Peter Carey

imgresFirst published more than 20 years ago, Oscar and Lucinda has firmly established itself as a contemporary classic and is regarded as one of the most important of Australian novels.

It holds a unique position in the world of literature having been awarded, in 1988, the Booker Prize and Miles Franklin Award – the only book to have won both. Author Peter Carey was jettisoned into the international literary arena. His reputation was further enhanced when he picked up a second Booker Prize in 2001 for True History of the Kelly Gang, making Carey one of only three authors to have received the prize twice (an honour he shares with J M Coetzee and Hilary Mantel).

Described by The Financial Times as the most original and rewarding novel to appear in the English language for many years, Oscar and Lucinda is a complex, gently comic love story and historical powerhouse of a novel. An imaginative tour de force, it introduced two of the most memorable characters in Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier and a love story of denial and misunderstood scandal but which takes more than half the 500-page novel to introduce the two to each other.

Oscar Hopkins

Young Oscar is, by contemporary definition, a geek. Bullied and pitied by the townsfolk of the small 19th century Devon village of Hennacombe, the physically uncoordinated Oscar renounces the strict Plymouth Brethren faith of his father.

Instead, the precocious child turns to the Church of England and the poverty-stricken Anglican pastor, who reluctantly supports him before sending him off to Oriel College at Oxford University. It is here Oscar meets Wardley-Fish and the ways of gentlemen in 19th century England, including the most sinful of all pastimes – gambling.

Obsessive by nature, always the outsider, Oscar works out a system on the horses to finance his years at university. But aware of his sin, he is strict about his winnings – they are never to be more than his needs. As a result, Oscar is able to justify his gambling, in his own mind, as God’s will.

Guilt and remorse, however, continue to follow Oscar, to the point he believes his only option is to challenge himself and his faith, signing up to travel by boat to distant New South Wales and the Australian colonies, a task made more arduous by his stultifying hydrophobia.

Lucinda Leplastrier

An orphan at 16, Lucinda is a reluctant heiress made wealthy by the unwished-for subdivision of her parents’ Parramatta farmland to the west of Sydney. Sent to live in the city by her guardian, she purchases, on a whim, a glass works.

Like Oscar, Lucinda too is an outsider, a forthright, strong-willed young woman with an unruly physical appearance not at one with the evolving Sydney society. Scandal after scandal follows as she unintentionally compromises friend and Randwick vicar, the Reverend Hasset, and discovers the joys of card-playing, which she plays with a passion until the early hours of the morning.

Destined to meet, Oscar and Lucinda’s two paths finally cross on board the Leviathan as the lonely first-class passenger returning from a fact-finding trip to England (and hopefully a husband) finds solace and company round the card-table on the second-class decks.

Oscar and Lucinda

Attempting to provide the minutiae of narrative and plot development of Oscar and Lucinda is to do the novel a disservice. It is a sweeping historical work, as much at home with Oscar’s philosophical question of faith or discourse on phosphorescence aboard the Leviathan as it is with guarded conversations between the two main protagonists around everyday subjects or a discussion about Lucinda’s failure to keep her maids for any length of time.

The two are bound by their loneliness, their willingness to take risk and, over time, their shared love of gambling. Oscar has his faith, but it is not an unquestioning one and it’s certainly flexible. Lucinda, more pragmatic, has her floundering business, made the more difficult for it being owned by a woman in 19th century Australia.

The novel is certainly not a love story in the more traditional sense. As their feelings for each other creep up, so they remain unexpressed amid confusion and ill-read signals. As the two enter into an agreement on their final and outrageous folly – the transporting of a glass church to Reverend Hasset and the (literally) godforsaken Boat Harbour, 400 miles to the north across unchartered territory, Oscar sees it as the opportunity to prove his love for Lucinda.

He need never have played such an extreme hand, but those signals remained ill-read. Totally unprepared for the arduous trek across untamed bushland, events unfold to ensure the ultimate gamble results in a wholly unpredictable outcome.

Oscar and Lucinda is a glorious tale, epic in scope, intimate in detail. From the religious fervour of small town Devon to the irreligious Boat Harbour on the banks of the River Bellinger, from the mores of English society to that of emerging 19th century Australia, from the poverty of working-class life to the ill-treatment of the local indigenous population, Oscar and Lucinda is compassionate, wry and a darned fine work of fiction.