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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Moonlight Downs by Adrian Hyland

Soho Crime, 330 pages, $14

Emily Tempest, half white, half Aboriginal, has returned to her childhood home at Moonlight Downs in Australia. It has been ten years since she left in disgrace when she was a teenager. After having seen much of the outside world, she has returned for … what? It’s possible that Emily herself isn’t sure why she has returned to the dry, lonely desert that her “mob,” the Watlpuju tribe, inhabits.

In fact, during her absence, the tribe was driven off when white ownership of the land changed hands and they were not needed to work the land. They moved to the town of Bluebush, where they languished and were in danger of losing their sense of place in the world: 

And what a mob they were themselves. A bigger collection of dickheads and drop-kicks you’d have to travel a long way to find: boozers, bruisers and substance-abusers, rockjaw Germans and lockjaw Yorkshiremen, grease monkeys and gamblers, meat-workers, meat-heads, missionaries, maniacs, men on the run, men on the dole, men on the Witness Protection Program. Peddlers, pushers, whores and bores, desperadoes of every denomination. You name it, they were there, drawn to the town like flies to a carcass.

A successful land claim recently returned the mob to Moonlight Downs, as owners this time.

Emily returns to find a depleted tribe, but they are still led by Lincoln Finders, a man attuned to his natural world, comfortable with the mythology of his land. Adrian Hyland explains:

The Dreaming — the Jukurrpa — is everything to the Warlpuju: a map, a mythology, a memory bank, a song cycle, but also a code of conduct, out of which you step at your peril.

Lincoln’s daughter, Hazel, was Emily’s best friend. Will she still talk to Emily? They are adults now but Hazel left without a goodbye or explanation. Can a childhood friendship be redefined? Their relationship is really tested when someone murders Lincoln, and the white authorities don’t seem able to solve the crime. Emily’s stubbornness, the same trait that led to many troubles along her life’s path, won’t let her dismiss the death of a man who was like a father to her, especially not so soon after being reunited with him.

Hyland has created memorable characters, both black and white. He imparts the rhythm and sense of the various jargons very well. Fortunately, there’s a small glossary added for some of the strange Aussie terms. (I will tell you that “spaggy bol” (spaghetti bolognese) and “ute” (utility truck) aren’t included, however.) While Americans may have to fight initially for understanding, it’s well worth the effort. This is an example of the reward awaiting those who try. Speaking of a government official’s collection of books:

His Collected Works had more windows of opportunity than a Hamburg whorehouse, more cutting edges than a combine harvester, more benchmarks than a drunk’s forehead.

Also, and equally as important, Hyland lets you into a culture in which the spiritual world and physical world are not separate. The earth sings a song that its inhabitants can hear if only they would listen.

Moonlight Downs won Australia’s Ned Kelly Award for Best First Book.