By Alex MillerFiction Allen & Unwin
Alex Miller returns to the Queensland high country – the landscape that has inspired so many of his novels – for his eleventh, Coal Creek, set in the 1950s. It’s a land and a people he knows well; he worked as a stockman there when he first came to Australia, aged 16.
Narrator Bobby Blue is technically an uneducated man, but he has an innate knowledge of his country and neighbours. Daniel Collins, the new constable in town, studies the country as an archaeologist might, bringing his coastal values to the hinterland. Bobby, a former stockman who becomes his deputy (and a boarder at his house) predicts trouble when Collins’s well-meaning interventions clash with the people he’s come to police. Bobby is caught in the middle, between his only friend – a good man with a tendency to violence in the wrong circumstances – and his boss. Complicating matters is Bobby’s dangerous love for Daniel’s eldest daughter Irie, aged 13, who teaches him to read.
This novel is beautifully and sensitively inhabited, expertly building the tensions between characters and perspectives to an inevitable yet surprising conflict. Written in the unlearned, richly nuanced voice of Bobby Blue, it is a deeply human story that grabs the reader and doesn’t let go.
‘Miller’s voice is never more pure or lovely than when he channels it through an instrument as artless as Bobby,’ says Geordie Williamson in the Monthly. ‘The intelligence of the author haunts the novel.’
Set in the 1950s in remote rural Queensland, a landscape familiar to readers of Alex Miller, Coal Creek is a compelling and, at times, heartbreaking tale. The novel is narrated by Bobby Blue, a character central to the unfolding tragedy, and Miller maintains the idiosyncratic voice with effortless consistency, creating a seamless narrative. It is an impressive piece of storytelling.
Bobby Blue is a young stockman,who finds himself living and working with Daniel Collins, the new policeman at Mount Hay. Collins is an outsider in this mysterious land and unable to connect with either the local inhabitants or the country. Bobby Blue is caught between his loyalty to Collins and his childhood friend, Ben Tobin – a bushman with a ‘well of cruelty his old man put in him with the beatings he gave him as a child.’ Miller’s skillful construction of tension after the confrontation between Collins and Ben gives the novel its depth and power.
Bobby Blue develops a relationship with the policeman’s oldest daughter, who teaches him to read. It is the forbidden nature of this otherwise innocent relationship that drives the impending tragedy. But it is the landscape around Mount Hay, filled with spirits and animals and mystery, unknowable to the likes of Daniel Collins, which is the ultimate driving force behind the novel. Coal Creek is a masterful work.
Alex Miller’s latest and eleventh book revisits familiar territory; once again it’s set in the harsh outback of the Queensland highlands, the setting of his Miles Franklin winning novel, Journey to the Stone Country. Coal Creek is set in the 1950s and driven by the first-person narrative of Bobby Blue. The son of a bushman and newly orphaned at 20, Bobby decides to forgo his mustering ways to earn a living as the deputy of Constable Daniel Collins, a city coastal blow-in, unsure of the ways of the hinterland and too arrogant to learn from its equally scornful inhabitants. His ignorance would lead the hard-bitten town to tragedy.
Even though the narrative is a slow-burner, there are hints of impending doom throughout so the reader is expectant and tense during Bobby’s storytelling as it meanders along various paths. Even when he can sense things are going awry, Bobby seems powerless to change nature’s course. Whether that’s stoicism or plain fatalism is hard to determine. What’s sure however, is that after Collins arrests Bobby’s best mate Ben Tobin (a wild bushman with a mean, impetuous streak) under dubious circumstances, he sets in train a tragic series of events that culminates in a bloody showdown.
Miller’s description of the unforgiving scrubs of the ranges is masterful, as is his control of Bobby’s voice – a rather stylised vernacular. He may be, as Miller describes him, ‘semi-literate’ but there’s a certain beauty in his language – terse and spare and occasional lyrical: ‘Them Old People knows things us whitefellers can never know. They are the dust of them worn-down mountains themselves and the knowledge is in them like the marrow of their souls. Which it will never be in us. We are like germs to them Old People.’
The novel’s study of divided loyalties between one’s boss and one’s life-long friend is further complicated when Bobby falls for 13-year-old Irie, the eldest daughter of the constable, who’s teaching him to read. In some ways, the novel operates on a classic triangular framework, with Bobby at the mercy of the push and shove tactics of two equally powerful men. The love interest can feel a little like an afterthought in this rather masculine book. But it does act as the final catastrophic catalyst for the book’s denouement. One shouldn’t discount the very real influence of Esme either, Collins’ well-meaning but meddlesome wife, who has a not insubstantial part to play in the book’s developments.
Though fictionalised, Coal Creek draws on Miller’s own experiences as a stockman in the outback when he was younger, and as such, there’s a mark of verisimilitude to his words. He knows this part of the country and its inhabitants and his knowledge is writ large on the page. In both the rendering of characterisation and of the hard-scrabble landscape, this tightly-plotted novel shows Miller in top form.
Thuy On is books editor of the Big Issue.
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