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Review: Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book

“Even true stories have to be invented sometimes to be remembered…”

The winner of Australia’s premier literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, was announced last week – it went to Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, selected from a shortlist of six fairly diverse titles. While there is no doubt Wyld’s is a very good book, I admit to being slightly disappointed. The book I would have picked, the book that I thought head and shoulders above the rest, wasn’t the winner.

I usually try to have a stab at the shortlist, if for no other reason than to measure how far my taste diverges from that of the literary establishment. This year, though, both time and reluctance held me back from two of the six titles – one because I really don’t enjoy the author’s work (Tim Winton’s Eyrie), and one because I felt the subject matter might be too hard for me to take (Richard Flanagan’s acclaimed The Narrow Road to the Deep North).

I read the other four shortlistees, however, and while it was a strong list altogether, Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book is something beyond what any of the others manage. It’s one of the hardest books I’ve ever read in my life, and one of the most intensely affecting, and I think one of the most important for Australia in particular.

The first thing to say about The Swan Book is this – it is much more about affect and song, curse and spell, than it is about narrativity in the way that Western writers (and readers) usually understand it. Wright, a woman of the Waanyi people from the Gulf of Carpentaria, tells her story with the most casual genuflect possible to notions such a linear time and the objective existence of the world.

Her flickering prose moves via phantasmagorical chants and searing, rageful political invective, via quiet, contemplative passages and deeply sad moments, punched through with constant brutality that doesn’t let the reader be easy for more than a page. It’s both intellectually and emotionally incredibly challenging, and it’s not for the fainthearted, but I think it is saying something that Australians desperately need to hear and understand.

I tried to explain to a friend what The Swan Book is actually about – a very important question to many Western readers – and the best I could come up with this: it’s about the depth and breadth of the harm that hegemonic white culture has done, and continues to do, to this southern land.

The main character of the book is an indigenous girl called Oblivia, mute, due to the trauma of an early gang rape, who is living with her slightly mad elderly white carer, Bella Donna, in an abandoned rusting old warship behind the razor wire of a prison camp. Oblivia’s delight in and love for swans gives the book its title and its theme, to the extent that it could be said to have one. Swans fly, inscrutable, through all the grim events and milestones of this tale; following Oblivia into her captive marriage to rich, successful local boy Warren Finch, following her everywhere, in her mind and her heart – possibly the only thing that can be.

In Wright’s dystopian near-future Australia, climate change has flowered into the nation-wrecking force that most of us know, at some level, it will become (except our current Prime Minister, who has cut subsidies to renewables and is a climate change denier. I kid you not). The Intervention in indigenous communities has morphed into the horror it was always destined to be, with some indigenous people living effectively as prisoner populations, while a few, who learned to play the game, rise in a corrupted, debased white polity.

Cities lie in wrack and ruin; refugees stream across the country, seeking safe harbour where none is to be found. The world is a mess and all sense of redemptive possibility is gone. The best anyone can hope for or reach for is small, heart-deep moments of beauty, clutched bodily from the rot – like the beauty of a flight of swans overhead.

The painfulness of this book, as a white Australian, is in hearing the furious clarity of Wright’s decimation of the destruction visited on indigenous people by the Intervention – a project many white Australians opposed, but that nonetheless occurred and was perpetrated by our government in our names. (Much like the current barbarity of Australia’s treatment of refugees, but that is a story for a different day).

The Intervention, to summarise, was an action by the then-Australian government led by conservative Prime Minister John Howard, which purported to be about addressing allegations of rampant child abuse in northern Australian indigenous communities.

Properly named the Northern Territory National Emergency Response, the Intervention was a package of devastating changes to welfare, support and policing in the Northern Territory that saw 600 soldiers enter these communities and perform various investigations and actions.

It’s worth noting that while the Intervention officially lasted a year (2007-2008), its effects are still being felt today. (It is also worth noting – and this is something that mainstream Australia doesn’t acknowledge nearly enough – that despite the intense effort put in, not one single prosecution for child abuse has arisen from the exercise).

In threading together climate change and the deep, embedded racism of Australia’s national policies, Wright makes a profound linkage that builds up through the seemingly chaotic pieces of this story. She draws out the ways in which destroying a climate and destroying a people are parallel activities, and born of the same miserable combination of venality, small-mindedness, selfishness, arrogance, indifference, and, yes, stupidity. Because what kind of intelligence allows us to so befoul our own nest and call that progress?

What Wright does in The Swan Book is something extraordinary – she holds a future mirror up to an Australia ruined by greed and racism, and asks, Do you like what you see? Do you? Are you proud? Does it sear your bones?

It should sear our bones. It should, and it does.

One thought on “Review: Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book

  1. aloha from Hawaii: Thank you, thank you, thank you….I agree with everything you so eloquently expressed. An amazing work. Ms Wrights over work, Carpentaria and (can’t remember the name about the Stolen Generations) are also exceptional. I am a huge fan and can’t wait for whats next. She is a national treasure.

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