Book Review: The White Earth, by Andrew McGahan

26 Jun

Book Review: The White Earth, by Andrew McGahan

I have not quite finished, but have cast my eye ahead to the end… It is a page-turner in its way, quite compulsive reading once you get into it.

Needless to say it is far more worthy of respect than anything ever written by Di Morrissey, not to mention Dan Brown. Needless to say, despite having just won the Miles Franklin Award, it will wither on the vine in comparison to Brown, Di Morrissey, Colleen McCullough or Bryce Courtenay (“Australia’s Best-Selling Author”).

The White Earth is a complex story, with parallel plots involving William’s present and his Uncle John’s past. As William’s story unfolds we also learn what has brought his uncle to this place in his life – both physically and emotionally. It is a novel with many shocks, gripping the reader with its sheer awfulness. Those who have read Dickens will draw parallels between Uncle John and Miss Havisham and be aware of the Dickensian feel to both the progression of the tale and the overall tone.

Indeed I thought Great Expectations from quite early in my reading, and Uncle John has himself been a kind of Pip figure. There are also allusions, I feel, to Patrick White and the pioneering White family – the title has a number of meanings. The allusions may not be entirely complimentary. The novel embodies a not unsympathetic insight into the “white man’s dreaming” of those in rural Australia whose families have in their generations also become part of the land. On the other hand, while understanding the motivation that led to the rise of Pauline Hanson, it is quite clear the novelist does not endorse it. Nor does he endorse mindless condemnation of it.

I worried about the narrative centre being the nine-year-old William, though I suspect I can see his significance. Being born in 1983, Will’s life is also the trajectory of the Hawke-Keating Labor government elected in 1983: the novel ends with the enactment of the Mabo legislation in 1993-1994.

People have called it “gothic”; I think I would prefer “magic realist” myself. If you have to have a label. In this respect I have to say I found Brian Castro’s Shanghai Dancing, which I read last year, richer.

I also think readers of The White Earth (which I really do recommend) might visit, if they can, Nicholas Jose’s underrated The Custodians (1997). Anyway, do read The White Earth: writers as good as McGahan, with a vision of this place we all need to be exposed to, are even greater treasures in the current dark time.

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Posted by on June 26, 2005 in Australia and Australian, book reviews, OzLit, reminiscing, Top read


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