Sometimes, when you’ve just read a really great book, you start the next one half-expecting it to be a little bit of a let down. So it’s very pleasing indeed to turn the pages and discover that you need not have worried at all…
I discovered award-winning Stephen Scourfield’s powerful writing last year when I read and reviewed his three novellas titled Unaccountable Hours, so I was delighted when his new novel As the River Runs turned up in the post box. Apparently it’s a sequel to his debut novel, Other Country – but I haven’t read that one yet, and you don’t need to read it first to enjoy As the River Runs.
As the River Runs is a terrific read, with convincing characters, luminous settings, and authentic Aussie dialogue. Above all, it has a compelling plot, highly relevant to contemporary Australia.
Ours is the driest continent on Earth and prudent governments around the nation are setting up infrastructure to get us through the next period of extreme dry weather. Stephen Scourfield’s story is based around the perennial fantasy of damming the Kimberley in the monsoonal north and piping it thousands of kilometres south to Perth. The tale involves an ambitious politician called Michael Mooney who hatches his plans in secret as part of his private campaign to be the next Premier. To suss out the likely opposition up north, he despatches his Chief of Staff Kate Kennedy and a sleazy political fixer called Jack Cole, both of whom are ‘in the know’ though their levels of cynicism and self-interest are different. Their guide is Dylan Ward, a former Greenie who acts as a go-between for mining interests, Aborigines, and environmental causes. Dylan knows nothing about the proposal for a dam; he thinks he’s escorting these two around to spruik a solar energy proposal.
All this is an eerily realistic portrayal of Australian politics but don’t let that put you off! Scourfield is a master storyteller and this novel is not about politics, it’s about people. Because before long the attraction between Kate and Dylan becomes the focus of the story. Kate’s all-important career is challenged by the precious beauty of the region and the values of the people who live in it. When she falls not just for Dylan but also for the Kimberley itself, she has to find a way of reconciling the spirit of the place with the deceit that underlies her work, a transformation made more difficult because her colleague Jack Cole is completely impervious to anything that doesn’t involve his own self-interests.
A couple of Scourfield’s characters occasionally become a bit evangelical about environmental or indigenous issues, but these are balanced by Jack Cole’s blunt persona and the rough-and-tumble outback men and women who punctuate the trio’s journey.
It’s a still day and folk amble around the grassy heart of Warramorra, which looks like an old village green. St Peter’s Church was built in 1934 by Aboriginal people, from mangrove poles under a paperbark wood roof, and the doors and windows of it are thrown wide.
‘The Roman Catholic mission is part and parcel of the place,’ Dylan explains. ‘Aboriginal kids were brought here. Adults, too. From different places and all put together, regardless of tribe. Today that might look appalling, but the other side of it is that Christianity brought Western education. It’s a tricky thing to judge from our vantage point now.’ **
‘Best thing that ever happened to them.’ Cole has been showing no interest in the place, but now he swings and goes for the jugular. ‘Turned them into something.’
Dylan bristles. ‘I think they already were something.’
‘Primitives running round the bush in bloody loin cloths?’
Dylan feels bait being laid, but takes it and swallows down hard. ‘It’s a longstanding culture; a complex society.’ Fumbling for a hook.
‘B…sh.. They go on about being here for tens of thousands of years, but they did damn all with the place. (p.212)
You only need to take a quick look at unmoderated commentary on the web to know that there are plenty of people who share ignorant opinions like this, but Scourfield not only gives his Aboriginal characters the right of reply, but also the moral high ground with Vincent’s ideas about tolerance and inclusion:
‘So, the surprise,’ says Vincent abruptly. It’s just a spot we’re going to take you to. But it’s a significant place. Not everyone gets to go there – not every white person, anyways. It’s where three songlines cross.’
“I’ve heard of songlines. Wasn’t there a book about them?’ says Kate.
‘By an English writer,’ says Dylan, and it sounds vaguely disapproving. ***
‘That’s alright. Everyone entitled to their say – their take on things.’
‘But isn’t this Aboriginal business?’ asks Kate. ‘I’d have thought you wouldn’t like someone else writing a book about your business.’
‘Nah,’ says Vincent. ‘It’s not just Aboriginal business – it’s human business. Henny, he plays the drums but he’s not African. The other boys play guitars but they’re not Spanish. We’re one big race – gotta get over the small stuff. Take songlines, ‘ he says. ‘We call ’em songlines, but other people follow a path. A destiny. No big difference. We’ve all got beliefs of one sort or another – or, at least, the fortunate do. More than anything, I believe in belief.’ (p. 230)
Kate, Cole, and Dylan visit an Aboriginal art cooperative, a wildlife refuge, a one-star outback hotel, not to mention remote townships barely worthy of the name, all of them dependent on unreliable and expensive diesel and strongly supportive of a solar scheme (which Mooney has no intention of implementing). En route the three also visit places of exquisite beauty. I have never been to the Kimberley but Scourfield renders the wildlife and scenery with such skill that it’s impossible not to fall in love with the place vicariously too. Through his Aboriginal characters he tells the Dreaming stories of the region’s creation, and these shape his central theme: that when you get back to basics in the bush, you have to be honest with yourself so that you can be honest with the people around you. That’s not a bad philosophy to live by.
** I’m not assuming that what this character says is what Scourfield believes, but I can’t let this perspective stand unchallenged. I have seen media reports about Aborigines who say they benefited from Western education in the missions and that it gave them access to choices they otherwise wouldn’t have had , but Marie Munkara in her satirical novel Every Secret Thing has a very different view of things.
Author: Stephen Scourfield
Title: As the River Runs
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Publishing), 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of UWAP.
Fishpond: As the River Runs