By Alexis WrightFiction Giramondo Publishing
The Swan Book
Alexis Wright is established as one of Australia’s finest writers. Alex Miller called her Miles Franklin award-winning second novel Carpentaria – an operatic work that blended myth and scripture, farce and politics – the Great Australian Novel.
If anything, The Swan Book is even more fiercely political and beautifully strange than its predecessor. It paints a nightmarish future Australia, in a world devastated by climate change and the wars it spawned. Aboriginal Australians are still living under the Intervention in the north. Wright follows the story of a mute young woman named Oblivia, the victim of a teenage gang rape, who attracts swarms of black swans to the swamp where she lies, among the hulks of rusting boats. Kidnapped by Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia, she is taken to a flooded southern city and locked in a tower.
Oblivia is given her name by a white woman named Bella Donna, a refugee from the northern hemisphere whose life was saved by a swan. Swans are just one recurring motif in this energetic, lyrical novel, which concocts a shifting story by drawing on imagery from myth, legend, fairy tale and the poetry of place, and extrapolating the politics of the fraught divide between Indigenous Australians and their ‘illegal’ occupiers, and the accumulating effects of planetary climate change.
‘The Swan Book should be regarded as one of the most beautiful, furious and urgent novels to be published in this country in recent years,’ writes Geordie Williamson in the Australian. ‘It reminds readers that the misery and upheaval promised by climate change has already come to Australia’s first people. Their exile is not a story from our distant past, in other words, but a harbinger of our collective future.’
Alexis Wright’s extraordinary book gives the reader an experience that’s primal, operatic and transformative, far beyond the parameters of the traditional novel. The story of the mute young woman, Oblivia, short for Oblivion Ethyl(ene), who is rescued from the hollow of a tree by an old gypsy, Aunty Bella Donna of the Champions, fuses fairytales, Indigenous spiritualism and an apocalyptic future engineered by climate change with social realism and popular culture.
Oblivia lives in a hulk amongst the swamp people, a place oppressed by Federal Government Intervention, and it is here that Australia’s first Aboriginal president, Warren Finch, finds and claims her as his ‘promise wife’. Among the cast of colourful characters are three genies, Finch’s Aboriginal bodyguards who all hold PhDs in disciplines linked to the land, and the cantankerous Harbour Master who haunts and taunts Oblivia as she struggles to adjust to city life as a trophy wife. A flock of swans from the swamp find and protect her and the bird is a recurring symbol of hope, with historical and literary references woven in.
A work of metaphysical and metaphorical originality, Wright has created a world where communication flows between ghosts, animals and humans, but it’s also frighteningly realistic, holding a mirror to the nation, allowing fiction to speak a truth about Indigenous issues that many Australian find difficult to confront. For all its gravity, though, it is wickedly funny, mocking the ‘realms of public sector abstract dialogue’, and it deepens the reader’s understanding of this ancient continent.
Alexis Wright, winner of the Miles Franklin in 2006 with her second novel, Carpentaria, returns to the gulf country’s half-circumference to measure again the distance between the periphery and the centre. In an undetermined future, nature is under attack and on the offensive. Climate change has broken previous weather patterns:
The parched paper country looking as though the continent’s weather systems had been rolled like an ancient scroll from its top and bottom ends, and ping, sprung shut over the Tropic of Capricorn.
The wages of inaction are measured out in new places by dust and unending rain. Swans have arrived at a migratory dead end and owls briefly build miraculous nests on the salted scrub. The army uses the land for target practice, scabrous hulks corrode at the edge of a dried, poisoned swamp; the Indigenous people at its edge are held by a metastasised Intervention in a prison, refugees in their own country.
Reefed from the roots of a gum tree after surviving a gang rape, Oblivia Ethyl(ene) is a mute witness to the new oblivion. In her busy, fragmented head, the thoughts buzz like dragonflies in a cup. Her migration is internal, in search of the ‘sovereignty of the mind’. Her rescuer, Bella Donna, is a refugee from Europe and a storyteller rich in the mythology of flight and music. Warren Finch, a whitestreamed Indigenous politician on the rise, has a hard-shouldered contempt for those who remind him too much of his origins. He journeys to the swamp only to claim Oblivia as his wife.
Like one of its great speculative antecedents, Marjorie Bernard and Flora Eldershaw’s 1947 dystopian novel Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, The Swan Book tells of a time where the past has fallen and the future — or at least a safe one — does not yet exist. Oblivia, ‘burnt the same colour as the ground’, is at this book’s centre, as both a character dispossessed of a unified self and as part of a distinct narrative voice.
The Swan Book echoes the ruse of the infamous tip-off offered by post-war hoax poet ‘Ern Malley’:
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
The black swan of trespass on alien waters.
The ruse Wright is playing at here is that of fiction, in particular the idea that an imagined future is always about the present. The Swan Book is an excoriating attack on the easy materialism of contemporary Australia, its selective blindnesses. The black swan is still a trespass, a symbol of displacement, ‘…a paragon of anxious premonitions, rather than the arrival of a miracle’.
Often fixed with bindi-eye burrs of laconic humour, Wright’s prose is an agile blend of the colloquial, the lyrical and the precise, with rhythms often closer to the balladry of poem and song than to much contemporary Australian fiction. It’s a sensory experience, with a vaulting energy that opens up the eye and the ear. Like the high capture of English by Irish writers such as Joyce and Beckett, Indigenous authors like Kim Scott and Wright both completely inhabit and stretch the coloniser’s language. The tine of a gulf country language — Waanyi — spikes many sentences to Country (janja [rain]), law (mangkarri [wife]), and experience (warraku [mad]).
It is tempting to regard The Swan Book as poetic and much of its crafted language and imagery support this description. A speaking voice is described as ‘too soft, like a cat’s purr’ ; the spore of Oblivia’s skin as ‘missile-launching fenestrae’ and the wind blowing across the swamp’s dead rushes as dissolving into a ‘nothingness the muted hues of rippling gold’. Certain passages read not too dissimilarly to the polemical verse of Australian poet Jennifer Maiden — white-hot censures splashed up from the 7pm news. However, the sheer scale of The Swan Book suggests neither the captured moment or the paper-train of events so much as the force of music.
Reflecting the author’s long-standing interest in the multi-stranded nature of Indigenous storytelling, Wright is keenly aware that stories remake themselves as often as they are retold. Stories belong to their place and to alienate them from the reality of their soil and sky — as the tenor of our current conversation about climate changes does — risks, perhaps even guarantees, disaster. To this end, the restless narrative energy of The Swan Book is its most singular achievement. Wright deftly moves the perspective from first-person to Jamesian god-eye; from polemic to the eye of a circling swan. This bricolage of prose creates a hip-hop-like wall of language. Wright’s layering of samples (musical, poetic, political) casts her as a literary Bomb Squad (Public Enemy’s masterful production team), conjuring up from a variety of disparate sources a propulsive wave of sense and force.
Not everything works. The odd passage reads as undigested, a fragment not made to entirely fit. However, in a local awards culture festooned with the over-familiar, The Swan Book proves that anger, facility and the courage to innovate is not peripheral. In world being broken down by technology, the simplest and most complex form of transmission — a singular voice — turns our gaze where it should have been all along.
James Tierney is a Sydney-based writer and reviewer.
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