Digging deep down under

THE CUSTODIANS by Nicholas Jose, Picador pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
In Nicholas Jose's highly enjoyable new novel, a panoramic lens sweeps across a whole Australian generation. From the title onwards, Jose's aim is unashamedly high: he is out to draw the portrait of a country, no less, and to tease out the multifarious strands of his characters' relation to it.

His band of characters is as varied as the land itself. There are artists, an heiress, a couple of Aboriginal twins separated when one is forcibly snatched by officials and removed to a children's home to be assimilated into mainstream culture, and many others. Jose runs each of their several, partially entangled stories in parallel, which is always a risky strategy. But on the whole it's a risk that pays off: at the price of a little confusion and occasional long-windedness, we're rewarded with a richly peopled narrative that really does play like life, casting deep hooks backwards in time - by means of an archaeological plot - while dancing over different facets of a vivid present.

A boy hides ancient bones in his wardrobe, archaeologists bicker over access to ancient sites: the novel digs into the country's past in ways both literal and figurative, to lay bare the ancient skeleton of the landscape itself as well as the bones it contains. This fine book is an anatomy lesson of a land and its people as they were and are, and a spritely, often amused and amusing rendering of modern mores: not just a book about identity and sense of place, but about loyalty to one's place.

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