Red Dirt Talking is a fascinating novel. In manuscript form it won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award, and I can see why. It has some first novel flaws, but it is utterly absorbing.
One of its flaws is that it has more characters than I could keep track of (even though I noted who they were in my reading journal) but Maggot the Garbo who introduces the story is unforgettable. He’s like those garrulous tradesmen you meet, so likeable with their trademark laconic Aussie sense of humour and oceans of common sense commentary about life. Here he talks about the mysterious disappearance of an eight-year-old:
Let me tell you, there’s a lot of stories going round about that girl. Lotta stories. Stories from the local rag. Stories from the townies, the station folk, the mob. Then there’s the police. Plenty stories there. No one can work it out, everyone’s gotta theory and with my job, I get to hear them all, whether I like it or not.
The truck’s reversing signal wakes Stirling on my run past Ransom Council. Stretching and yawning on the green wedge of lawn, he pushes the ten gallon hat from his face. ‘Here, let me help you with that, Maggot!’ he says jumping up, and shouldering the last of the bins. Then hops into the cab and joins me for the rest of the run. By the time we reach the roadhouse, he’s given me the drum on the girl as he knows it. Reckons she got taken by the wild dog living in a waterhole. (p. 6)
Annie, a graduate anthropologist, blunders into Maggot’s outback community in search of oral history about the Rumble Crossing Massacre. Her well-intentioned efforts to bring this story to public notice at a forthcoming conference in New Zealand are part of an ambitious plan hatched with her supervisor, Thornhill. They want to raise indigenous Australian issues at the UN, and Annie thinks that this agenda and her pressing deadlines will charm stories out of the old people and kickstart her career.
Well, it’s no spoiler to tell you that she is very soon frustrated in her quest. From the moment she leaves the city for the long perilous drive to the community she is on a learning journey, and it’s also a learning journey for those of us whose outback adventures haven’t made it much off the beaten track. Annie has to learn humility and patience first, not to mention some of the local language and mores. She has to take time (that she doesn’t have to spare) to learn that ‘meaning here isn’t something that’s fixed or owned‘ (p. 28) . Mick Hooper becomes her guide and mentor, ‘easing her out of her own ignorance in such a way that she feels she’s made a huge leap in understanding. He doesn’t dunk her and leave her floundering, like the Mysterly woman’. (p.29) Very occasionally on this theme the author’s good intentions almost stray into didacticism, but I like her intent which is to promote respect for indigenous culture.
However, Wright doesn’t sanitise the issues which bedevil outback communities. There is domestic violence, drunkenness, shiftlessness, and family tension as well as generosity, helpfulness, mateship, empathy and spiritual integrity. Wright doesn’t create a cast of Pollyannas either. Characters in this community range from comic eccentrics to tragic losers, but the Mysterly woman is the most pugnacious of the locals. A reader can’t help but judge her unkind unfriendliness though as it turns out she has good reason to be taciturn and critical.
Alone and a very long way from home, and with her own demons to deal with, Annie has to deal with scepticism from most people in the community: Aborigines have learned the hard way to be suspicious of the motives of outsiders. They classify blow-ins as one of three Ms – missionaries, mercenaries or misfits – and they deal with these outsiders on terms which are not easy to understand (including taking advantage of them when they can). On the other hand the community is generous and forgiving once they see that an outsider is willing to surrender to their culture rather than impose their own. The difficulty for Annie is in making that leap…
The mystery of Kuj’s disappearance gathers momentum as the story progresses and the resolution is found in a most surprising way.
There was high praise for this book in The Weekend Australian and I found it very satisfying reading. I hope Jacqueline Wright is hard at work on another one.
Author: Jacqueline Wright
Title: Red Dirt Talking
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press
Fishpond:Red Dirt Talking