Saturday, August 23, 2008
Adrian Hyland, Moonlight Downs or Diamond Dove
The U.S. title is Moonlight Downs, and the original Australian title is Diamond Dove, but whatever you call it, Adrian Hyland's first crime novel navigates with aplomb some difficult territory. First, his central character (and narrator) is Emily Tempest, a young woman--not easy for a male writer to speak convincingly in a female voice; second, Emily is half-aboriginal (or First Australian, I'm not sure what the correct terminology is--a lot of the terminology used in the book is language used by whites to describe blacks, accurate depictions of outback language but hardly a clue as to how the people would themselves prefer to be described by outsiders). And much of the book deals with the native culture of the outback, both among the actual native cultures and the colonial settlers (miners, ranchers, etc.) who have by now been there long enough to establish a sort of native culture of their own. Other Australian writers have touched on European/Aboriginal relations but this is the first to make it here to the U.S. that is so immersed in the culture (Hyland knows the outback and its cultures firsthand). The novel is, appropriately enough, not a straightforward mystery or crime plot, but also, fortunately, not an attempt to take on a pretense of being a "dreaming." Hyland chose his narrator well: she's able to navigate among all the cultures and is an outsider (and therefore an observer) to all of them. She's also a sort of bull-in-a-china-shop, not always looking (or considering) before she leaps into a situation that she doesn't' fully understand, thus kicking up disputes, and even deaths, with her actions. But the novel is also thick with texture (without laying it on too thick): it's a story, not an anthropology text or a Carlos Castañeda kind of thing. There's mysticism in it, but it's included among a kaleidoscope of views about what's happening. The story progresses slowly, more in characters interacting with one another than in an investigation (in spite of the "Emily Tempest investigation" tagline on the cover of the U.S. edition). Emily has just returned to Moonlight Downs, the camp in the outback where she grew up, and she wants to find out who killed the local elder who was a kind of patron for her in her youth (and also the father of her best friend of those days, Hazel). Emily is outside the network of "skin names" by which the society is organized, but is an adopted daughter of a sort. Everybody thinks a local wild man/lunatic committed the crime, but Emily's not so sure, and in provoking the police to investigate a white rancher's possible involvement, she kicks over a hornet's nest. She does do a bit of investigation, but that's not really what moves the story forward or solves the crime. The reader stays involved because of the web that Hyland weaves with the elements of the tale: the characters, Emily's very particular (and narrow) point of view, the cultural frictions and land disputes among whites and blacks, the dreamings and taboos of the indigenous culture, the breakdown in both that culture and the European one in the face of drought, sun, alcohol, violence and a host of other difficulties. Even the characters portrayed negatively remain sympathetic in some ways, and always interesting (except for some rowdy characters from the seedy town nearest the camp. The Australian title of the book refers to Hazel's dreaming, not a casual feature of her life but an essential fact of her place in the universe, and thus an essential feature of the novel, skilfully maintained as a consistent metaphorical thread by the author. When Emily finally discovers the identity (and motive) of the killer, there's a dramatic and violent denouement, the only really action-oriented part of the book, but a satisfying wrapping up of the various themes and images that have brought us to that point along with her. This is a quite different sort of book than the crime novels of Garry Disher or Peter Temple or Shane Maloney, the best known of the Australian exports, but it stands comparison with all of them in its language, its evocation of a particular (and particularly Australian) culture, and the dramatic hold it has on the reader. A question: The Australian cover is more "Australian" in referring visually to the dreamings and to the place, Moonlight Downs, though the Australian title refers to the dreaming in particular. The American cover refers to some creatures in the story, but the title refers to the place. Which is more effective as a cover, or a depiction of the contents? I have to say that, to me, the Australian cover conveys more about the contents of the book and the American cover makes it seem almost like a Western (indeed a quality of the book shared with some other Australian crime novels, as noted elsewhere in this blog and others).