Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Book Review - Capricornia by Xavier Herbert

Capricornia by Xavier Herbert

Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1996 (first published 1938, many editions extant)

ISBN 0207189730

This novel is an Australian classic, and deservedly so - epic in outlook, Dickensian in the best senses of that word, and forward looking for its time, Capricornia is not only a moral tale for the citizens of Australia, it is one of the great books about the "Deep North" of this continent.

Capricornia is the inter-generational tale of the extended Shillingsworth family, and their life in Capricornia, a fictional area of what is recognisably the Northern Territory of Australia (Herbert also fictionalizes the names of the cities in the South - Batman for Melbourne, Flinders for Sydney and Churchton for Adelaide). Herbert, although he wrote this novel while living in London, had spent several years in Darwin as protector of Aborigines, so a lot of the raw material for the book would have been garnered first-hand.

While the book follows the paths of the two Shillingsworth brothers, Oscar and Mark, from their first arrival in Capricornia, the book mainly deals with racial issues. Mark fathers an illegitimate son - Norman - by an Aboriginal woman and much of the book revolves around how he and other people with Aboriginal blood are treated by the government and the people of Capricornia.

Herbert succeeds in showing that the way the Indigenous people of the country are marginalized, bastardized, ignored and used up and thrown away is not only morally repugnant, it actually is stunting the natural growth of the country and all the people in it, white, coloured and Aboriginal. Herbert's strong views on the situation come out again and again, with set-piece scenes that show the ridiculous nature of the situation, and speeches explaining (at one stage to Norman, who is struggling to understand his heritage) how the Aboriginals are a noble race cruelly crushed under the white mans boot. This thinking, natural to us today, was no doubt in advance of the majority when the book was published - Herbert had learnt well from his experiences up North.

The novel owes quite a debt to Dickens - crowded with the most amazing characters who revel in the most fantastic names - Joe Ballest the Railway Ganger, The Reverend Theodore Hollower, Magistrate Paddy Larsney, Police Trooper O'Crimnell, to name a few. There is plenty of humour throughout what is essentially a tragic tale for the main protagonists. Their travails against corruption, drunkenness, and against the land itself come over the course of the book to seem futile - whenever someone gets ahead, they are dragged back to earth with a thump, either by nature or the wiles of their fellow man.

One other major character in the novel is the countryside itself - Herbert obviously loved the countryside just as much as he hated the injustices dished out to the native inhabitants, and he brings it to life in all its harshness and beauty.

This book is immensly readable, with great moments of high farce and high drama. While the narrative flags in some places, with characters moved abruptly out of the story when they are no longer serving a useful purpose, the language never loses a vibrancy and the touch of the true north.

Highly recommended.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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