I almost jumped out of my skin: Coal Creek
Review: it seems nigh on impossible to reveal anything about the plot without giving away too much
Alex Miller: roll on novel number 12. Photograph: Eric Luke
Allen & Unwin
At the age of 16, London-born Alex Miller migrated to Australia – alone – and worked as a stockman in the Queensland outback. Now 77 and the author of 11 novels with settings which range from the early 20th-century Melbourne art scene to a Tunisian cafe in Paris, he returns to the remote and untamed “stone country” of central Queensland for this study of friendship, love, loyalty and betrayal.
The first-person narrator of Coal Creek, 20-year-old Bobby Blue, is also a young stockman who is finding it hard to make a living out of ranch work after the death of his father. When a new police constable, Daniel Collins, arrives in the small town of Mount Hay with his wife Esme and their daughters Irie and Miriam, Bobby gets a job as the constable’s assistant.
He is quickly befriended by the Collins family, especially Esme, who insists that he shares their meals, and 12-year-old Irie, who teaches him to read and write: “or I would not be writing this account of the trouble that come on us now,” as Bobby puts it.
Though they are well-intentioned, neither Collins nor his wife know the first thing about life in the bush. Their attempts to “improve” Mount Hay and its people, among them Bobby’s friend Ben, the local “bad boy” who has set up home with an Aboriginal woman, first strike the reader as comic; but as the tension and unease mount, it’s clear that some sort of tragedy is bound to ensue.
The key to the novel is Bobby’s halting, highly distinctive narrative voice. At times childlike, at time quasi-biblical, it takes a bit of getting used to.
It also takes the reader a while to figure out that there’s more to Bobby’s apparent artlessness than meets the eye – and that what he doesn’t say is as important as what he does.
Maybe that reticence is contagious, but it seems nigh on impossible to reveal anything about the plot of Coal Creek without giving away too much.
The story hinges on the blossoming attraction between Bobby and 12-year-old Irie – which has a long way to travel to cross the chasm between them, in terms of age and class background.
Chasms, failures of understanding, disjuncts and dislocations are woven through Coal Creek. Underlying everything is the gap between modern human beings and the timeless Australian landscape.
Bobby remarks on the instinctive but unknowable intelligence of animals – horses, and birds such as eagles: “How do they rise without effort into the white emptiness of sky like that without no weight on them? I have often seen a pair of them perched close to the ground and giving me that superior look they have . . .”
The contrast between traditional wisdom of the Aboriginal peoples and the book-learning of the Collins family is another major thread in Miller’s densely-woven tapestry.
Despite its inevitability the novel’s explosion of violence, when it comes, makes me almost jump out of my skin. Miller is very good at that.
And danged if, even after everything that happens, he doesn’t manage – Antipodean magician that he is – to put a smile on my face as I turn the final page. Roll on novel number 12, is all I can say.