Carpentaria takes us to the Far-North-Queensland town of Desperance, an isolated little place on the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria, a reasonable plane journey from any major city. A small white population lives in the town, existing mainly as vassals of the major mining company which has recently set up operations. Meanwhile, skirting the town on opposite sides, two Aboriginal tribes live in what some see as squalor, but which others regard as a traditional way of life.
After the first two hundred pages or so of this book, I was starting to wonder if it was really a novel at all. The pace unfolds slowly, unhurriedly, each chapter languidly introducing and following a new character - the laconic Norm and his haughty wife, Angel Day; the miracle from the sea, Elias Smith; the nomadic Mozzie Fishman and the mysterious Will Phantom. The first half of the book seems to be more like a series of loosely-related novellas, set in the same town with a cast of extras in the background. Slowly though, Wright allows us to learn more information about our new friends, and Will's return to the aptly named Desperance (an apparent mix of hope and desperation...) kick-starts the narrative into another, more powerful gear.
On the surface, Carpentaria appears to be about the clash of the old and the new, the traditional and settling communities, but this is not really the case. Although the white community is there in body, in another sense, they're not really that important. Despite their position in the centre of the town, they are in fact marginal, irrelevant - until, that is, the time comes for scapegoats to be found, and the paths of the communities cross. In fact, for much of the book, more is made of the rivalry between the Westsiders and Eastsiders, both of whom believe they are the rightful owners of the land.
This is one of the problems for the white inhabitants of 'Uptown' - rootless and (practically, if not theoretically) godless, they have nothing to cling to, nothing that pulls them together except a dependence on the mining money and a shared fear of both the Aboriginal population and the sea. This is a telling contrast to what drives people like Norm and Mozzie, whose constant retelling of inherited stories grounds them and connects them with with their past.
While Norm and Mozzie share a link with their history and traditions, they are separated in a much more fundamental way though, a gulf which is probably the biggest dividing force in Carpentaria. Norm is a man of the sea, and Mozzie is deeply rooted to the land; both are unable to function properly outside their natural environment. Norm is, metaphorically, if not literally, a fish out of water when stuck at home restoring his fish in his shed. His soul belongs out on the sea, sailing alone under the stars, with only the fish for company. Mozzie spends his life in a never-ending tour of the continent, visiting sacred places, paying respects to his ancestors and bending everyone's ear with his stories.
Desperance itself, caught in an uneasy position of being delicately poised between the unforgiving arid land and the menacing, ever-shifting shoreline, is unable to establish itself, unable to decide what it is. The white folk refuse to set out to sea, afraid of what might happen to them, preferring, despite their proximity to the wealth of the oceans, to look to the land for riches - a decision which will prove to be a misguided one by the end of the novel.
So what is Carpentaria? It will probably be a lot of things to a lot of people. It's a story of tension between black and white and between different tribes. It's an exploration of the importance of faith and history, an emphasis on the necessity of belonging. It's a description of how life can be, far from the centres of 'civilisation'. It's a novel with a wonderfully-imaginative style of writing, an Australian variety of magical realism, asking the reader to suspend disbelief while making them wonder if perhaps, just perhaps, it could all be true...
While reading Carpentaria, I had a small scrap of paper at the back of my book, ready for any pearls of wisdom which might occur to me. By the time I had finished reading, it was full of messy, scrawled fragments, too many to use in what has already become a lengthy, incoherent ramble. Even without being subjected to my musings on the role of angels, ghosts and demons, the suggestion of parallels with the American deep south and a lengthy polemic on racism, it will be pretty clear to the reader of this post that Carpentaria is a book I enjoyed greatly.
But how to leave the book behind... Well, I think a look at the name of one of our new friends will help us out here. In one way, the name of the book's main character sums the novel up pretty well as phantoms abound in the seas around Desperance. In another though, it's not terribly apt; you see, as I hope has become apparent by now, there's definitely nothing normal about Carpentaria...