Gunshot Road, by Adrian Hyland

This is simply a marvellous book. It is a crime story, and an exciting one, but more importantly the book is a poem, full of emotion and insight. Every sentence is beautiful, as the author depicts a harsh yet rich landscape that is also a character in the story, seen through the unique perspective of the most unusual and attractive detective I have come across in a long while, Emily Tempest.  And as icing on the cake, there are science jokes – technology and science figure heavily in the plot, but more interestingly, are as much part of the words on the page as any other subject addressed by this talented writer.

Emily was the protagonist of Adrian Hyland’s debut novel Diamond Dove (a.k.a. Moonlight Downs). As in the earlier novel, Gunshot Road is a story set among the interconnected imagery of “deaths and dreams, watercourses, tracks and plains”. Emily is half Aborigine, and is half at home with the nomadic “blackfellers” who live with spirits, songs and taboos, in parallel with the “whitefeller” Australia of booze and drugs as well as an alien law and order. She is also half white, courtesy of her father, the miner and  Hyland ukgeologist Jack Tempest, and in her education and outlook is as much part of the “white” world as she’s also part of the ancient, collective spirit of the tribal culture in the Northern Territory of Australia. 

Emily’s intuition, independence and bravery (told in the previous novel) have impressed Tom McGillivray, superintendant of the Bluebush Police Station, so he has made Emily the Aboriginal Community Liaison Officer for the region. As the novel opens, she sets off to take up her post, only to find Tom is sidelined and his replacement is less than ideal. Almost immediately, the squad is called in to the case of a murder – two old men have had a drunken argument and, it is assumed, one has killed the other with a geologist’s pick while under the influence. Emily knows both men (as she knows most people in this small but dispersed community) and is not convinced. The main thrust of what follows is the story of her determination to ignore her superiors as well as everyone else, and uncover what’s really going on. This, naturally, leads to all kinds of dangers on the way to full discovery and final resolution.

Gunshot Road is a superior novel to Diamond Dove in that Emily is a more real, mature person with a clearer sense of where she is headed, and the story is far more focused, which makes the fantastically portrayed background and culture much easier to absorb along with the quite complicated plot – the first half of the novel is packed with witticisms and delightfully pungent, astute observations, which slacken off somewhat in the second half, where seriousness and tragedy are more frequent.

Like its predecessor, what makes this book so wonderful is its empathy and poetry. Emily, and the Aboriginal people, live by different mores than white Australians, living through dreams, songs and strong  Hyland us unspoken taboos about what may or may not be said. As she tries to do her job in the “whitefeller” world, Emily is both enabled to discover facts known only to the “blackfellers” as she understands their sensitivities and they trust her. On the down side, most of the “whitefellers”, police and civilians, don’t understand, like or even notice her, so she encounters hideous sexism, abuse, and worse.

This is a novel that must be read. It is superb. The reader is immersed totally in Emily’s persona and world, so different from anything that all but a few can have lived or know. The author’s achievement is simply magnificent. I am lost in admiration for this wonderful piece of writing, in effect a long prose poem; the author’s identification with his main character and the very land itself; as well as his multidimensional portrayal of a cultural group, with its contradictions and flaws, as it coexists with the “civilised” world of governments, rules and structures, in a strange parallel-but-independent way, as if the indigenous people are ghosts. The result is magic, in more than one sense of the word.

Review first posted at Petrona, June 2010.

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