peteg's blog - noise - books - 2019 03 27 McGahan TheWhiteEarth

Andrew McGahan: The White Earth.

/noise/books | Link

On dead tree from the Maroubra branch of the Randwick City Library after I had no luck extracting it from the depths of the Waverley Library. McGahan's Franklin Miles winner from 1995, and the last of his adult novels for me to read.

It's 1992 on the Darling Downs and the dynastic pastoralists on the savanna (prairie?) are sweating Keating's response to the recent High Court decision (Mabo) that Australia was not, in fact, unoccupied back in 1788. One great-uncle ('great' being a relational distinction without a difference) tries to promote respect for Lockean property rights by evaluating his nine-year-old great-nephew's inheritance-worthiness after said nephew's incompetent farmer father is killed by fire. Somewhat like the current regime, he hotly rejects all aspersions that he is racist, and yet the mob he rallies to his property climaxes in cartoonish Klan action. There are inheritances based directly on Great Expectations, variants on Murray Bail's connection-with-land ruminations of Eucalyptus, a politician not so far from those in Last Drinks, and even a bunyip and a Voss-like explorer and hallucinatory sequence. Afterwards it all goes up in flames and how with a massive confluence of fire, drought-breaking rain, the Senate's vote on Keating's Mabo legislation, generational death (the old man has a heart attack! the mother dies while fetching the proof of inheritance!) and the rest. The symbolism is heavy: the childless daughter adopts the rootless boy. In brief, it is every inch the Great Australian Novel, or may have been if McGahan had held his nerve with the magic realism.

The two-track structure is as well-executed as it is well-worn. The cliffhangers get a bit irritating when the payoffs are such small potatoes: his characters play entirely to type, contrary to Patrick White's vituperative observations. The minor characters drink epically but that's not the focus here. Again McGahan is repetitive in the small: he says it, he says he said it, he reads it to us, and only then does the hand wringing begin.

James Ley.