Plains of Promise (1997) – Alexis WRIGHT

And so the march of contemporary Australian novels continues at university, and so, therefore, do my reviews. I read about half of Carpentaria a little while after it won the Miles Franklin Award in 2007, and I’ve always meant to go back to it. When this came up, though, I was pretty interested – not least because it is much, much smaller than the epic that is Carpentaria.

Plains of Promise is the story of a mother and daughter – though they never meet. Ivy Koopundi is a child born into St Dominic’s, a missionary for Aboriginals in the Northern Territory, and her life there is far from perfect. She is subjected to constant torture, because it is believed her presence in the camp is a curse. When her daughter, Mary, is born under unfortunate circumstances, the newborn is whisked away to be looked after properly. Years later, Mary returns to the camp, in the hope of finding out who she really is.

This is very much a novel of two halves. Not just when we talk about the plot, but I think stylistically as well. And there’s one half I thought was much better than the other. The first half of the novel concerns itself with the treatment of Ivy in her youth, and let’s be fair, it’s not very nice. She is tormented by the other Aboriginal tribes who are in charge of the camp, because her people are unknown to them. Similarly, because she is a half-caste, she has caught the eye of the superintendent of the camp, and is being raped. After Mary is born, she snaps, and we get a really good little section between the two main stories about her time in a mental institution. There’s this feeling throughout the novel that no one really knows what to do with Ivy, and as such, she is bounced back and forth through so many different situations, none of them are any good for her. Clearly Alexis Wright has a point to make about the treatment of Aboriginals in the twentieth century – and she pulls it off surprisingly well. She doesn’t have to resort to melodrama or trying to falsely pulling at our heartstrings – the facts are staring us right in the face, and they are pretty brutal by themselves.

The second half of the novel, though, is where we really get going. Just throwing it out there now – I much preferred the second half. Mary Koopundi has grown up, and the parallels begin to cascade around us. She, too, has a daughter with a man who leaves her pretty quickly, and works for an organisation trying to organise some kind of pan-Aboriginal political action so their voice is recognised by the Australian public, and the government. This insight into the way they work, the blocks they constantly face, and the in-fighting that is such a huge part of the Aboriginal community was, for me, some of the most interesting facets of the novel. I wonder how much of Wright herself is in Mary, as she seems to be a heartfelt character that one instantly feels for, and her daugher is lovely as well. And while Mary and Ivy meet, they do so in circumstances that mean they never know. The Stolen Generation has been in the news quite a bit lately, and this look at how these people are treated by Aboriginal communities trying to forget the past is also a fascinating insight. I did feel a little dumb reading this beook, because there’s so much about these issues I just don’t know. It is intersting that Wright is one of the few successful Aboriginal authors in Australia – I’m really struggling to think of any more.

While people may remember Carpentaria as Wright’s epic, Plains of Promise gives it a run for its money. While not physically big, it is thematically huge, and essentially gives us a history of the Aboriginal peoples in the twentieth century. The ending is not, I think , particularly optimistic, and while this was written at a time of conservative government policies, despite the Apology, we are still at the same place, 12 years later. This is not a happy read, but it’s getting close to essential reading for Australians.

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