Sunday, July 18, 2010

Gunshot Road

My review of Adrian Hyland's new novel from yesterday's Melbourne Age

Gunshot Road - Adrian Hyland

At its best crime writing is a lens through which we can view society, analysing its flaws and follies while allowing ourselves to relax in a genre that is both familiar and comfortable. Crime fiction has its rules and tropes but colouring within the box of these conventions a skilful writer can take us to places that even literary fiction dare not go. Adrian Hyland is well on the path to becoming such a writer; his second novel, Gunshot Road, the sequel to the Ned Kelly Award winning Diamond Dove is the continuation of the story of Emily Tempest a young, attractive half white, half Aboriginal woman from the desert town of Bluebush in the Northern Territory.
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At the start of Gunshot Road Tempest is just beginning her first day on the job as an Aboriginal Community Police Officer. Tempest’s boss, the sympathetic Superintendent McGillivray is going to ease her in gently, but he is sucker punched in a brawl and sent to the hospital. In one of the many delicious little ironies in the novel, McGillivray’s bedside reading material is Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee - the story of a once proud aboriginal people marginalised and penned in squalid reservations.
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Tempest is forced to work with Acting Superintendent Cockburn, a man less in sympathy with the native peoples and their problems. A case of two drunken elderly prospectors - one of whom allegedly killed the other - is Tempest’s first investigation and although it seems like a simple affair to Cockburn she notices inconsistencies and begins – literally - digging deeper. Enter a mysterious Chinese geologist, a pattern of rocks which is really a map and a shaman from the desert who everyone assumed was dead years ago. Mining is an important piece of the puzzle in Gunshot Road and we are treated to a fascinating insight into the geological diversity and richness of the red heart of Australia. But the meat of the book, of course, is Emily herself, a woman of two worlds: contemporary white Australia and an Aboriginal culture that goes back tens of thousands of years.
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Recent fictional treatments of Aboriginal life by non Aboriginals have seldom been that interesting because they err on the side of caution, often treating the indigenous peoples as if they are living exhibits in a kind of Stone Age spiritual museum. Hyland’s novel however explores some of the problems that others shy away from such as endemic alcoholism, petty violence and spousal abuse. I actually think he could have gone further into this territory without losing the reader: he mentions in passing punitive police raids and jail suicides, but holds back from the full gravity of such experiences, keeping his tone relatively light and chatty. Although this is comparing apples and oranges you are unlikely to put down Gunshot Road seething with anger the way you do with Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.
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Tempest uses her local knowledge, her intimate relationship with the land and her deep understanding of human nature to eliminate a few red herrings and make real progress with the case. The further her quest takes her away from the claustrophobic world of the “whitefellas” the better I liked the book. Hyland too seems to relish the harsh bush of secret water holes and mythic landscapes. Here is his description of an incident at a fire ceremony:

I’d thought I was ready for her, a part of me was. But another part was mesmerised, staring with dazzled fascination at the river of light the torch left in its wake. In that shimmering arc I saw galaxies and golden fish, splinters and wings, crystal ships. I saw the song we’d just been singing.

I could have done with more of these scenes that are “very Territory” and are utterly engrossing; in compensation Hyland could perhaps have eased up a little on the broad humour (I certainly hope that he’s got all the Ron Jeremy jokes out of his system now).
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Before I began Diamond Dove I did wonder if a middle aged white man from the Melbourne suburbs could really get inside the head of a twenty something girl from a splintering Aboriginal mob on the edge of the spinifex bush, but two books in I am reassured. Unless you are very picky indeed your disbelief will not be unsuspended. Experienced crime readers will figure out the mystery a little earlier than Emily Tempest does, but this does not detract from a novel which is rich, lyrical and moving. The Text Publishing Company are offering readers an accountant confounding “love it or your money back” guarantee, but my guess is that this is one of the safer financial gambles that they’ll take all year.