Christopher Hart

Culture Clash

The Voices

By Susan Elderkin

Fourth Estate 323pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

SUSAN ELDERKIN IS one of our twenty brightest young hopes, according to the recent Granta parlour game. And she richly deserves her place, given the range, strength, gustiness and sheer verve of her second novel, The Voices. A story that centres around the painful act of Aboriginal male circumcision might make a male reviewer’s eyes water, and other parts shrivel, but it expands the mind and the imagination over the vast and inscrutable Australian wilderness with a power that recalls Bruce Chatwin at his best (ie when he is not showing o@, or even Patrick White.

Billy Saint is a thirteen-year-old dreamer who lives in an isolated community in the Kimberleys and has a passion for wildlife and landscape. We follow his progress through ten years of struggle – metaphysical struggle,.for want of a better word.

One day, Billy hears the song of the spirit-child, a beautiful young girl, and is drawn into an alien world of Aboriginal myths and rites. Inevitably things go wrong. Billy’s long expiation for primitive sin is the focus of the story.

Much of the backdrop is entrancing. Elderkin is fascinated with the world of male work and bonhng, in a way that immediately puts one in mind of Annie Proulx – an unmixed blessing, as far as I’m concerned. At a rodeo at Fitzroy Crossing, ‘Cattle with hot, runny noses brayed and butted each others’ hindquarters, eyeing the commotion hm their pens with shifty eyes. There was a smell of beer soalung into the earth.’ She understands how these men talk, and what makes them laugh, and is able to orchestrate passages of ribald social comedy.

However, Elderkin also introduces a whole range of spiritual and ecological concerns that meld perfectly with plot and landscape. The Voices asks no less a question than: How can we survive in a de-spiritualised and godless world? And the answer, of course, is we can’t, and we won’t. If the spirits leave the land, then something in us dies too. We become mere carbon-based machines. Perhaps we already have.

Elderkin shows the occasional weakness of inventing a cursory, two-dimensional character to hammer home some point. Thus, when Stevo picks up a hitcher, he suspects him immediately of being ‘bloody lefiie’. Sure enough, on cue, the leftie is soon lecturing Stevo on the evils of meat: ‘Do you know how much protein there is in a single lentil?’ But such schematic and predictable moments are rare.

Elsewhere, Elderkin relishes the complications of modern Aussie tribalism. There are white do-gooders bullying the ‘blackfellas’ about retaining their customs and their souls; other ‘whitefellas’ giving them government handouts and hoping they’ll stay sedated for ever on grog; others still who want to give them absolutely nothing, and to whom they are little better than vermin; while the blacks themselves. it must be said. are really not too keen on the work-driven Western lifestyle that seems to leave no time for anything else. One of them frankly says he really doesn’t care about losing the ‘forty-thousand years’ worth of wisdom’ that white anthropologists keep on about. All he wants to do is get a car and a house with a pool, and assidate.

Even the chapter headings are a joy: ‘The Largest Pair of Knees’, ‘A Real Dunny’, ‘The Outbreak of Intergalactic War’, ‘How to Eat a Cow’, ‘The Spirit Child Stops’. Elderkin has imagination to burn.

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