Australian novelist Alex Miller has won the converted Miles Franklin Literary Award twice (in good company with the likes of Tim Winton and David Malouf), yet I had never heard of him until I read Coal Creek last month. Yep, I blame that literary rock I’ve been living under! Luckily I am a member of an excellent book club that recommends authors like Miller (thanks gang!), allowing me to save face during cocktail parties…“Alex who? Never heard of him. Pass me a devilled egg.”
Bobby Blue (Robert Blewitt), Coal Creek’s first person narrator, lives in the fictional country town of Mount Hay in outback Queensland. [Random aside, Coal Creek is a faux village in Victoria, Australia.]. When the recently orphaned Bobby begins working with Mount Hay constable, Daniel Collins, after years of being a stockman and farm hand, his life course changes forever.
Bobby boards with the Collins family, and strikes up a friendship with the oldest daughter, Irie, who helps him with his reading and writing. He also develops a cordial yet distant relationship with Esme, Daniel’s wife. Bobby is dismissive of Daniel and his urban ways – despite his achievements in World War Two, Daniel is an outsider ‘city boy’ who can’t be fully respected.
‘The people of Mount Hay was who they was and that was that. People of the ranges. And they mostly despised people from the coast and laughed at them and their peculiar way of going on’ (p21).
Nevertheless, Bobby begins to enjoy elements of his work, including his time caring for the police horses, and having stable [horse pun NOT intended] employment.
Things start to get complicated when Bobby’s childhood friend Ben Tobin is accused of beating his common-law wife, Deirdre (or Deeds) while living in a shack at Coal Creek, just outside of Mount Hay. Miller hints this may be the start of something ominous, with Bobby acknowledging,
‘There was anger in Ben in them days that his dad put there by beatings he gave him as a boy. I always feared he would kill a man one day.’ (p39)
While trouble with Ben simmers in the background, the relationship between twelve year old Irie and twenty year old Bobby is turning into something more than a childhood infatuation – a love that is forbidden due to age and class differences.
Analysis and Comments:
Coal Creek is a novel that is surprising and occasionally heart-wrenching. It is a book that can be enjoyed for what it is – a tale with a twist that explores love, friendship and betrayal in the 1950s outback, and be left at that. But it really is more that than. Coal Creek calls to our subconscious, making us question our beliefs and morals. It shows us what evil can lurk in the heart of ‘good’ people.
An example of this moral question is seen in the relationship between Bobby and Irie. This would usually be interpreted as one of power play – young girl versus slightly older man. Surely she is being taken advantage of, and this is straying into very nasty territory. Yet the way Miller expresses the relationship allows a complexity and true tenderness to be revealed, with a careful balance between the characters negating any ill-feeling.
Coal Creek also has similarities to some of Cormak McCarthy’s work. Perhaps it is the writing style, with the deliberate disregard for formal punctuation and the character-driven plot that takes the characters across familiar landscapes and places in unfamiliar circumstances.
After all, Coal Creek is novel about the importance of place, something that McCarthy always captures well. We know that Bobby’s world view is limited. He is barely literate (he left school at ten), has lived in and around Mount Hay all his life, and could be viewed as immature and uncultured. Yet he is a skilled horse/stock man who can turn his hand at anything, and has a remarkable and noble knowledge of the Australian bush and a respect for Aboriginal culture, something Collins, with his formal education, certainly lacks.
‘I heard Daniel tell Esme one time that the Aborigines knew nothing of their country and they all hated each other’ (p23).
Another enduring feature of this novel is Bobby’s voice – incredibly authentic without being irritating. For example ‘Me and Ben was drinking overproof rum like we used to in them days.’ (p36), capturing Bobby’s thinking in a conversational way. Miller lived in central Queensland during his formative years, lending a rare clarity to the people and places in the novel.
Bobby’s trusting nature and balanced thinking makes him a likeable character, yet sometimes he is almost too trusting, too passive. Would he really allow certain things to happen the way they did in the novel? Is his love for Irie influenced, or heightened, by the tragedy in his young life?
Overall, an excellent novel, if unusual in terms of writing style and expression. Coal Creek would be enjoyed by Australian and international readers alike, but will truly resonate with people that have lived in farming communities. A well-written novel that twists and turns in your mind while you are reading.
If you are interested in other works by Alex Miller, I highly recommend this great Australian/New Zealand book blog: http://anzlitlovers.com/2012/04/12/autumn-laing-by-alex-miller/
Published by Allen and Unwin, 2013. ISBN: 978 1 74331 698 6. Can be purchased from http://www.amazon.com.au/Coal-Creek-Alex-Miller-ebook/dp/B00F909E1M