‘Coal Creek’ by Alex Miller

Narrated by ex-stockman Bobby Blue, Coal Creek is a rich, evocative novel on the nature of loyalty, friendship and love. Tough yet poetic, hard yet delicate, Alex Miller’s eleventh novel is a powerful, simply told tale. 

An account of events some 15 years earlier when Bobby was just twenty years old, and conveyed in an ungrammatical local vernacular, his is a convincing voice, finding himself caught between loyalty towards his childhood friend, Ben Tobin, and his new boss.

Set in early 1950s Queensland and the isolated highlands of the hinterland, Mount Hay is cattle country with a small, residential population set in its ways. The arrival from the coast of the new constable, Daniel Collins, and his family leads to a simmering tension that ultimately ends in tragedy. 

With ideas and values learnt mainly from books and a war spent in a kill-or-be-killed New Guinea, Collins is a man who notes down everything, but, to the likes of Bobby and the other Mount Hay residents, ultimately sees nothing. 

“People like the Collins knew the city and the coast and they have another way of seeing things that was not our way of seeing things. The Collins wanted to know what they had no need to know…They was not bad people, just ignorant.”

Collins’ inability to read and understand his new environment results in three dead and lives changed forever. 

Having left the cattle station on the death of his father and the only way of life he knows, a laconic Bobby decides to try his luck as the off-sider to the new police constable. But Collins is the total opposite to his laidback predecessor. Struggling to understand the ways of the town, Collins invites Bobby to stay in a hut in the police compound. But the constable is not a man to listen or take guidance – and Bobby soon falls into a habit of silence. This lack of local knowledge leads to initial misunderstandings and, along with well-meaning but misplaced interventions by his ambitious wife, Esme, mistrust. Bobby Blue’s friend, Ben Tobin, becomes the focus of this mistrust.

Living a few miles out of Mount Hay in the isolated Coal Creek with a young aboriginal woman, Ben is ‘not a big man but he was strong and quick as a snake. He had his own breed of pony that was just like him, stocky and reliable on his feet.’ The victim of gossip led to the initial crossing of paths for Tobin and Collins. Convinced that revenge is on Tobin’s mind, goaded by Esme, Collins looks to deal with the ex-stockman. But, with the revelation of Bobby’s reciprocated interest in the Collins’ elder daughter, Irie, an abrupt and ruthless change in attitude from her parents towards Bobby results. It’s at this point Miller skilfully increases the tension. We already know things will take a turn for the worse – Bobby has throughout his tale told us. But we just do not know in what way.

On migrating to Australia in the 1950s as a 16 year-old, Miller himself settled in Queensland and worked as a farmhand and stockman. It’s a country he knows well – and it’s a country he beautifully captures in Coal Creek. Bobby’s knowledge is such that he can navigate the bush in the dark – there’s a personal, learnt knowledge sitting alongside an almost spiritual connection to the land. Collins cannot come anywhere near close: the difference between him and Bobby is as much the difference, as he recognises himself, between Bobby and the local indigenous population in terms of an intimate connection to the land.

Coal Creek is a lucid, haunting, tragic tale that was awarded the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Award for Literature – but which inexplicably failed to even make the Miles Franklin Award shortlist.