God’s Gift to Australia

C.K. Stead

  • Woman of an Inner Sea by Thomas Keneally
    Hodder, 284 pp, £14.99, July 1992, ISBN 0 340 53148 7

Seen from London WCI, New Zealand looks to bear about the same physical relation to Australia as the British Isles to continental Europe – just offshore. In fact, although we are near-neighbours and natural partners in one of the world’s great emptinesses, there are 1200 miles of usually rough ocean between Sydney and Auckland, and even more of social, historical and climatic difference.

Australia at large is all drama and exaggeration, Two memories come to mind: one, a Fifties newsreel showing sheep dying of drought under dead trees high in the branches of which were the carcasses of animals left there by the last flood, the other, flying at 38,000 feet over the red central desert which seemed to go on hour after hour, away for ever in all directions, and seeing, on a long single straight line that must have been a road, a little cluster of minute silver squares set out in rows – the unpainted iron roofs of a mining town.

In their native state the Aborigines burrowed into a condition of identity with the land. The European mind, unable to achieve this coincidence with heat and dust, and in any case (quite reasonably) not wanting to, has had to struggle to give mythic expression to what it sees and feels, and more, to what it knows to exist beyond the coastal fringes where it has made itself at home. In the visual arts, Dobell’s red landscapes and ‘blackfellas’ among rickety wooden verandahs, Boyd’s eerie waterholes and ghostly figures, Nolan’s square Ned Kelly head like a prison out of which the eyes stare at barrenness, are examples.

In literature the mythic scale has been as courageous, though not always as successful. I find it hard to enjoy the florid extravagances of Patrick White’s Voss, while respecting the attempt to make word match fact. Xavier Herbert tried to meet size with size, insisting that his Poor Fellow My Country, close on a million words, be published in a single hardback volume which one day may kill a frail reader trying to manage it in bed – but a remarkable narrative, animated by an enormous will to do justice to its continental subject.

My First university job after graduating in New Zealand was a lectureship in Armidale on the northern tableland of NSW. The University there did all extra-mural work for the State, which meant going out to weekend schools. One of these was at Dubbo. There had been heavy rains, direct rail-links were cut, so to give a few classes to a few students I had to travel 350 miles to Sydney and then another 250 to Dubbo – all day through an unvarying blue-gum landscape. The rains continued and the Macquarie River rose 24 feet in the 24 hours I was in town. It was just running into the gutters of the main street as I got on my train to leave. The Macquarie, or its near neighbour the Bogan, must be the unnamed river that figures, and floods, in Thomas Keneally’s new novel.

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