Friday, September 07, 2018

Australia: The Swan Book, by Alexis Wright

I haven't stopped reading, but there were all sorts of books piling up on my "to be read" list that didn't fit into my round-the-world project. Wonderful non-fiction books, poetry and all sorts of others. And there were books from countries that I had already read a book from. This is one of them. However, it is from "another Australia" - quite different to the others I have reviewed here, as the author is an indigenous Australian from the Waanyi nation in the highlands of the southern Gulf of Carpentaria.

The book is set in a dystopian future Australia heavily impacted by climate change and by pollution from mining and other activities. Oblivia (full name Oblivion Ethylene) is a young aboriginal woman who has been gang raped and rescued from her refuge in a hollow eucalyptus tree by an old white woman, Bella Donna. They live together on a rusting hulk of a ship which has been dumped by the army, along with many others, in a drying up swampy lake in the middle of a detention camp for other indigenous people, both those whose traditional land it is, and those relocated from the cities.

The ship is surrounded by swans which have come from the south (they do not traditionally live in this area). Oblivia does not speak but has a special rapport with the swans. As her story unfolds, she becomes the wife of the first Aboriginal President of Australia, Warren Finch. She is taken to live in the city where she lives a beleaguered life, sequestered in a tower apartment. All sorts of strange characters find their way into her story - three genies, a talking monkey named Rigoletto, an old harbour master who may or may not be a ghost. And always the swans are a haunting presence, guiding Oblivia's journey.

This story is not mythical in the Western sense. It is an interweaving of worlds, the world that we would see on the surface, and the spiritual world of ghosts and nature, which is just as real. In this reality, a story is not something that is told but is an integral part of each tribe and each creature, and it must be walked rather than read. (Or perhaps it is "read" in the land). Nevertheless, there is also plenty of white European culture woven into the story - in particular, the stories and poems of swans which are woven throughout. It is both a lyrical epic, and a powerful protest against what we are doing to the earth, and against the treatment of the indigenous people of Australia.

If you are also trying to read a book from every country, and you would like to choose something non-"Western" where possible, then I would highly recommend this as a choice for Australia.

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