Archive for October, 2014

COAL CREEK by ALEX MILLER

coal creek

This book is unlike nearly every other modern novel. It uses the  traditional storytelling approach of  first person, past tense, with a linear timeline. This is quite a relief, as it makes it a fairly easy read compared to all those funky ‘literary’ novels that jump back and forth in time and speak in the voices of multiple characters.

It is set in an unspecified part of north west Queensland in the 50s. The narrator is Bobby Blue, an uneducated young man whose mother died when he was teenager. As a result he grew up in the bush mustering cattle for  land owners throughout the region, with his father,  his fathers best mate, and his son Ben.

As the story begins Bobby’s father has recently passed away and Bobby is out of work. A new policeman has just arrived in town. He has come from the city to replace the previous officer, who had been in town for 30 years, and was a local. He is looking for an assistant so Bobby decides to take the job. As story develops it becomes clear that the person the policeman, and therefore Bobby, will have to deal with is Ben. Bobby’s oldest friend.

The book does not contain a lot of fast paced action. Neither does it cover a lot of complicated political or philosophical issues. Nevertheless it triggered lots of discussion at bookgroup. Nearly all bookgroupers liked it, and we don’t often agree so that is quite a compliment to the book.

The thing that seemed to get people’s interest was the way it portrayed two very different ways of being in the world. The narrator presents this as the difference between western people and coastal people. That is, between him and the other locals, and the new policeman and his family. But from the readers’ point of view, and I’m guessing the author’s, its the difference between people that talk about what they are thinking and feeling and those that don’t. Those non-talkers that just expect people to pay attention and pick up on what is happening.

The book is fairly even handed. It doesn’t  necessarily say one approach is better than the other. For example, it would have been a romantic cliche to say that the way older generations of country people leave almost everything unsaid, and just expect people to pay attention and understand, is a better way to live than a more modern urban way of being, that expects people to ask if they want something and speak up if they disagree.

It didn’t do this it just presented the difference very starkly.

This was perhaps very relevant for bookgroupers as many of us have, or had, parents that grew up in the Australia of the 30s, 40s and 50s, with Anglo Celtic heritage. This means our parents were these non-talking types, but we, as 21st century urbanites, are expected by our colleagues friends and lovers, not unreasonably, to be talkers. Speaking personally, this can be difficult when you have been brought up by a non-talker.

Non-talkers live in a world where the presumption is that not only is mind reading possible, it is an accurate and universal ability that everyone possesses. This means they don’t ask for what they want, or say how they feel, but they believe they know what you want and how you feel. The book demonstrates what can go wrong with this approach, but also suggest it has some strengths.

Some of things bookgroupers did not like included several concerns about the language.

  • It is written in what is supposed to be the vernacular of that time and place, so much of the grammar etc is incorrect which was annoying to some bookgroupers
  • Some bookgroupers also questioned whether it was an accurate representation of the vernacular from that time and place
  • The language is sometimes very beautiful and insightful. How is that a problem for book groupers? Well it is written  in the first person, in the voice of a very uneducated character, so some bookgroupers found these more lyrical passages unbelievable
  • Finally, several bookgroupers who have spent time in north west Queensland, including me, couldn’t relate to the description of the country because it didn’t resemble the areas we have seen.

For me these concerns were much less troublesome than they might have been, because I knew from reading this review in The Monthly that the author actually grew up in this time and place, so he is writing what he knows. I took a lot more of it on trust because I knew that from the outset. I was able to assume that because he is from there he must know what it’s like. So for example I assumed it was a part of north west Queensland i had not seen and that’s why I didn’t recognise it. If I hadn’t known the author grew up there I would have assumed he was making it up and getting wrong. I suspect this would have annoyed me a lot.

Another thing that annoyed several bookgroupers was the technique used to create suspense. One of the advantages of writing  in past tense with a linear timeline is that it allows the narrator to insert references to events later in the book. In this case the book contains a liberal frosting of phrases like ‘if x had paid more attention to y things might have turned out better’ and ‘this was before the tragedy’. Bookgroupers thought more of these were used than was needed to create suspense.

However, bookgroupers did like that all this building up of expectations of violence and tragedy did not turn in to as much tragedy as expected. A lot of us were expecting a violent and unhappy end, and were relieved to find it wasn’t so bad.

Bookgroupers also thought it handled the difficult issue of a young man’s friendship with a young girl well. Similarly people found many of the descriptions of land, horses, dogs, vegetation and wildlife very simple, detailed and often beautiful.

I recommend The Monthly’s review. It is a very  serious and knowledgeable account, unlike this one. It includes a lot of info on the author and his previous books, some of which are apparently set in the same place and time, and even include some of the same characters.

 

 

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October 6, 2014 at 12:45 pm Leave a comment


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