It’s been six years since Alexis Wright’s last novel, the Miles Franklin Award-winning Carpentaria, a sprawling novel about the north of Australia. The Swan Book sees Wright return to similar themes, but in a setting quite unlike anything else ever seen in Australian literature.
The world has been ruined by climate change. In the north of Australia, one group of Indigenous Australians has been granted self-determination, and created a nation on the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. One young girl, Oblivia, lives in a shipwreck in the bay with an old white woman. One young boy, Warren Finch, has been anointed by the elders to be the vessel of their future. As their lives begin to intertwine in ways Oblivia could never have imagined, the fate of the Australian nation could be in their hands.
The Swan Book is postmodernism at its finest. Wright has no qualms about mixing high and low culture, or about placing European, Asian and Indigenous mythology on the same level. A quick glance at the quotation list at the end of the novel shows sources as varied as Auden, Wordsworth, Paterson, Goswami and Ch’i-chi. These quotes and references are weaved into the text seamlessly, never feeling forced or tokenistic. While mainstream Australian literature can often feel parochial and inward-focussed, Wright proves that Australian writers can mix with the best when it comes to internationality.
There can be no questioning, though, that this is Australian writing—indeed, Indigenous Australian writing. If you’ll forgive my getting theoretical here for a moment: postcolonial theory suggests that when colonised groups write in the language of the colonised, they are reclaiming the centre. They take back the power taken from them by the destruction of their language and culture by appropriating it for their own stories with their own language and words.
Wright has certainly reclaimed the centre in this novel. It is a blistering critique of almost every piece of legislation and policy aimed at Indigenous Australia in perhaps the entirety of Australian history. Nothing is safe from Wright’s keen view, from the Stolen Generation to the ultra-politically-correct language of the bureaucracy. Blame for the state of Indigenous Australia in this time is laid squarely at the feet of the white settlers. Make no mistake—this is at least as much political protest as it is piece of art.
And even though this novel is set in the future, where an Indigenous man, a man who is a world leader when it comes to minority rights and environmental policy, is one step away from becoming Australia’s Head of State, the sharp divide between Indigenous communities in outback Australia remains as stark as it is now. Wright does not see traditional power structures as a way for Indigenous Australian to solve their problems.
There is no one—in Australian or international literature—who writes quite like Alexis Wright does. After the success of Plains of Promise and Carpentaria, The Swan Book cements her claim to being one of the great writers of our time. Imagination is easy, but to be able to couple it with a socially and politically relevant argument to create a cohesive, enthralling and beautiful piece of art is a talent few others have.