Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 4, 2021

Song of the Crocodile, by Nardi Simpson


Cultural warning to Indigenous readers: This post may contain the names of people who have passed away.


Nardi Simpson’s debut novel Song of the Crocodile made quite a splash on release.  Developed through the auspices of the 2018 black&write! fellowship award, it was shortlisted for the 2021 ALS Gold medal, the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, the 2021 Indie Debut Fiction award, and for the 2021 UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.  It was also longlisted for the 2021 Australian Book Industry Awards, the 2021 Stella Prize, and the 2021 Miles Franklin Award.  Thanks to the digital option, I was able to hear Nardi Simpson talking about her book with Nelly Thomas at the WillyLitFest which made me even more keen to read it.

Her prose is utterly captivating:

The journey always begins prettily.  The glory of a new dawn shines light around bends of peaceful ranges, pink and orange dazzling as it rises, warming your back, sending you on your way. Curves of rock sway then twist and you dance on hips and belly, shoulders and neck of the sleeping mountain-woman beneath.  As you continue, a ridge line crests then opens.  You tiptoe along it, tyres tickling her spine until a steep descent to cleared, encouraged green opens into paddock and field, the land at her base rocky and rich, both signs of fortune and luck.

Knife-sharp ranges and distant hills beckon.  You continue towards them until eventually they dissolve into hints of ripple and crease.  Finally you hit the flat.  And scrub.  And flat and scrub it continues to be — bland and harsh and unforgiving. Wide. Bare earth, spare space, forgotten land.  Black dirt meets red earth and turns metal hard. Hot springs and dried lakes hide motionless, waiting for reason to wake and flow.  But this you cannot see; the scrub hides her secrets well.

You travel on and on, and on further still, numbed by endless coolabahs and tufts of grass and itchy blue blanket sky.  Only when boredom, exhaustion and blindness take hold does life rise from the plains: a sign.  Darnmoor, The Gateway to Happiness.  (p.3-4)

The (fictional) town of Darnmoor is, however, a place of mixed blessings.  Emblematic of countless country towns across Australia, it’s a town divided by race, where the white residents celebrate progress, participate in civic events commemorating their history and live in respectable comfort.  The Billymil family, on the other hand, live in the Campgrounds, in rudimentary shacks without electricity or running water.  These people have joyous family lives, and make the most of the natural environment around them, but they can’t get ahead because they are paid less than white workers doing the same jobs, if they are paid at all.  The racial prejudice and discrimination they face is overt and unrelenting.

The multi-generational saga begins with Margaret who does the laundry for the town’s hospital.  It’s a dirty job that no one else wants to do but she gets satisfaction out of finding time to visit the old and the lonely with a cheering word, a cup of tea or a gentle touch.  But before long, she is blamed for pilfering from a patient’s drawer when the real culprit is Matron’s light-fingered daughter…

When Margaret gets sacked, her daughter Celie takes the initiative and starts up a laundry in an old shed in the Campgrounds.  The women of this novel are incredibly strong, resourceful, and generous and it is a team of these women who help with the back-breaking work, which is kick-started by a load of washing from the influential town mayor’s wife.  Without running water or electricity, The Blue Shed laundry soon becomes the best service in town, along with expert needlework repairs done by Celie’s sister Bess.  (Who is a wonderfully obstreperous character!)

Too many people die young in this story, and Celie’s baby Mili is born on the very day that her husband Tom dies.  Under the care of her resilient mother and a loving extended family Mili grows up to be a highly intelligent and beautiful girl with striking eyes.  But at fifteen she is told that she is not welcome at high school, and her visit to Mayor Michael Murphy to seek his intervention is the catalyst for a series of tragic events.

The spirits who populate the cosmology of this novel intervene in events and are also visitors to the living.  So although the bereaved grieve, they are not entirely bereft of the presence of the loved one.  Most powerful of all the spirits is the crocodile of the title.  As Simpson explains in this interview at the Matilda Bookshop, creator beings can be both benign and malevolent:

The crocodile […] is a creator being in Yuwaalaraay country responsible for the creation of a beautiful inland lake outside of Walgett. So, in that sense he has given us beauty. He has given us a landscape unlike any other. Narran Lakes – the lake I am referring to- in the past and still today, is a place we share and care for many other tribespeople. It brings us together, yet its creation was forged through jealousy and violence and death. Garriya, to me, is undefinable, perhaps this is his reason and his power in this story.

Mili’s son Paddy, the troubled young man who is unable to transcend the circumstances of his birth, is drawn to the crocodile as a agent of justice and vengeance.

Song of the Crocodile is richly rewarding reading.  Highly recommended.

Jennifer also reviewed it at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large.

Nardi Simpson is a Yuwaalaray woman from the North West NSW freshwater plains.

Author: Nardi Simpson
Title: Song of the Crocodile
Publisher: Hachette, 2020
ISBN: 9780733643743, pbk., 405 pages
Personal library, purchased from Readings on Love Your Bookshop Day

 


Responses

  1. […] See Lisa’s ANZ LitLovers review […]

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  2. I am reading this later this month so will come back then. She was (is?) a member of the Stiff Gins whom I have seen live.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am delighted that you also enjoyed it, Lisa. It’s a novel that will stay with me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes indeed. I have it on my desk beside me as I’m writing… I’m not ready to put it away on the shelf yet.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I just came from reading Jennifer’s recommendation, and your review piqued my interest even more. I love the prose in that excerpt, the way she makes the land into a sleeping woman whose spine you tickle. Looks as if the book is not published in the UK yet, so I’ll have to wait a while – or order it in from Australia.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your contributions Andrew, it’s been great to have you on board.
      BTW Simon and Schuster haven’t been operating in Australia long (Shell by Kristina Olsson was their first novel here in 2018) but I expect they will make it available globally before long.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I absolutely love the reminder to conceive of the Earth as a living creature. The collection of essays by Brazilian Indigenous activist Ailton Krenak, Ideas to Postpone the End of the World (2020) includes a piece about a river that is a grandparent and I find myself thinking about that kind of kinship a lot in the months since I read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Actually I don’t understand people who think the world is just concrete! They make no sense to me.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. […] See my review here. […]

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