Spirits of the land, who sit in hammocks and watch TV A strange, supernatural story doesn't quite convince Sue Hubbard
"When I was about three," Susan Elderkin said, when interviewed about her first novel, Sunset Over Chocolate Mountain, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, "…so young that I couldn't write, I just wanted to tell stories. I could barely talk. It's just the earliest thing I can remember that I wanted to write stories. I remember learning to write with a pencil at school, and thinking that it's really important that I learn to write so that I can write my stories down."
Named as one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists, she has just published her second novel. Such glittering credentials are a huge pressure on a young writer, for it leads the reader to expect a good deal. The Voices is a big book - more than 300 pages - a strange, magical realist sort of a novel where the first character we meet is the wind. Set in the remote, sun-baked landscape of the Australian bush, it is, in a sense, a moral tale. One which warns that modernity is in danger of cutting itself off from the natural world, from the old lore and atavistic knowledge of the Aboriginal people who were once deeply connected to this blood-red landscape through their totemic relationships with the rocks, animals and birds, their song-lines and dreamings.
Billy is a lonely boy. His young mother, Crystal, has never quite taken to him, more concerned with being the sexiest girl in town and her adulterous relationship with the Aboriginal Stevo with the big "wonga" who works at the servo. On the edge of manhood at 13, Billy is the boy who asks awkward questions in class. "It doesn't make sense," he protests. "How am I supposed to know what's right and what's wrong?" Introverted and ignored, he turns for answers and a sense of identity to the stones and rocks that he collects, and to his beloved roos. "He'd never shoot a roo. Never ever. Billy loves these kangaroos more than anything else in the world - more than himself, he reckons." Then one day Billy hears strange singing. It is a small Aboriginal girl who has sung him up. She names him Wallamba or "kangaroo boy"; from this moment his life changes in ways over which he seems to have little control.
Juxtaposed with this narrative we find Billy, 10 years later, in a hospital in Alice Springs. He has been in a fight and has mysterious injuries to his thighs and genitals which it is rumoured he received from a "run-in with some Wongis. Got himself a taste of black-fella law". The doctors diagnose him as schizophrenic. In fact he has been running from the voices in his head, which are actually the spirits of the land, and from his own sense of transgression. Only Cecily, his Aboriginal nurse, will listen.
There is much that is finely observed here about the life of poor whites and "half-blood" Aboriginals in this far-flung corner of down under. Whether you fall in love with this book will depend if you buy the chatty colloquial style of the voices of these ancient bearded beings, lying around in hammocks, picking up the phone and watching TV, like antipodean Rumplestiltskins.