Praiseworthy by Alexis Wright review – an Australian epic | Fiction

Praiseworthy by Alexis Wright review – an Australian epic | Fiction

In a lifetime of writing, Alexis Wright became aware of “how other people were telling stories on behalf of Aboriginal people in Australia”. A national narrative manipulated by the most powerful, she wrote in a 2016 essay, would “constantly be on my mind while trying to tell stories of who we are … The cloud is always present.”

That cloud takes tangible form in her fourth novel, Praiseworthy, which follows 2013’s The Swan Book, a climate crisis dystopia, and 2006’s Carpentaria, winner of the Miles Franklin award. Set in the scorching, dirt‑poor fictional town of Praiseworthy on the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia, this incandescent, polyphonic novel – a free-wheeling, circling narrative told by 10 “oracles” – recalls the choral Tracker, Wright’s 2017 biography of an activist of the stolen generations assembled through first-person testimony. Yet besides Indigenous storytelling, the novel’s vernacular poetry, flights of magic realism and lyrical interiority about internalised hatred nod to other ancestors, from Homer, Joyce, García Márquez and Fuentes to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

A polluting, skin-scourging, ochre dust cloud sits immovably above Praiseworthy, a “sulky haze … full of broken ancestors”. The unquiet spirits are grieving two centuries of dispossession, and the desecration of land whose rightful stewards know more than the rest of humanity about how to look after the future. Readers are plunged into the worldview of those who have survived “cataclysmic times generated by the mangy dogs who had stolen their traditional land”. In the novel’s excoriating satire on assimilation, townsfolk who seek “to turn themselves into white-type superior people” want the Australian army to bomb the cloud. Yet it outlives several prime ministers, who do “bugger-all about the haze”.

The protagonist, Cause Man Steel, is a “culture dreamer” who hears “the crying and screaming of every single animal caught in firestorms”. Yet, figuring global heating could herald a “golden age for the downtrodden black man”, Cause takes his cue from the global poor, who use donkeys rather than fossil fuel, and hatches a plan for a “world-class donkey transport conglomerate” to beat the climate crisis. A crazed visionary, whose belief in economic self-reliance owes much to the tracker of Wright’s biography, his ambition triggers the central quest – both Homeric and quixotic. He sets out in an old Falcon sedan to round up the hardiest feral donkeys in northern Australia.

A doomsayer messiah who lives in the contested Native Title land of the town graveyard, Cause is “sabotaged by the very people he was trying to save”. His foil and nemesis is Major Mayor, an all-round villain known as Ice Pick after mysteriously appearing to turn white. Forever “kowtowing to a conga-line of government politicians”, Ice Pick accuses his constituents of being “child-killer parents”, urging them to “love your children like white people” love theirs.

Cause’s wife, Dance, is absorbed in her own quests: for butterflies, or for the homeland of a Chinese ancestor. Their 17-year-old amateur boxer son, Aboriginal Sovereignty – named “so that the boy would always remember who he was” – is a “bony gazelle” in ripped jeans. Part of a beleaguered young generation, he had “walked the distances of old men many times”, though his father could “never see the police cars roaring through the streets of his son’s brain”. He falls in love with a girl two years his junior.

His eight-year-old brother, Tommyhawk, is a “smart‑arse fascist kid” whose goal is to “supersonically shoot himself faster than sound out of Praiseworthy”. Spending most of his time online makes him prey to fake news claiming that “Aboriginal communities are an infestation of predatory paedophiles”. Convinced he must be taken “into the white world before he too was molested”, he determines to “only tell white people what they wanted to hear”. The callow child’s indoctrination unleashes tragedy. Tommyhawk shops his brother for his underage love – bringing down police brutality and alien law.

The novel’s notional 2008 setting puts it a year into the Howard-driven Northern Territory intervention, whose pretext was a report on child sexual abuse entitled Little Children Are Sacred. Mindful of stolen generations, child suicides and thwarted self-determination, the novel targets malign fictions hammered home for political ends. If its satire is relentlessly repetitive, it is an indignant response to “repetitious mantra broadcasts”. As the 14 October no vote on the Indigenous voice to parliament has made many despair at an impervious national narrative, some reiteration may be called for.

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In her 2016 essay, Wright states: “If you ever wanted to know why Australia is not capable of grappling with the truth of its history, it is because we have remained in [a] storytelling war with each other.” This immersive epic marks a decisive stand. It suggests what would be lost were assimilation to succeed: vital knowledge for the future of humankind gleaned from the “biggest library in the world – country”. Yet its anguished elegy is offset by a confidence in survival, born of a long view of tens of thousands of years.

Praiseworthy by Alexis Wright is published by And Other Stories (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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