Swaddledidaffs and blobtongues

Penelope Lively tries hard to believe in a mystical link between Australian aborigines and Cheshire peasants: Strandloper by Alan Garner, Harvill, pounds 14.99

Penelope Lively
Friday 31 May 1996 23:02

Fiction powered by Australia seems to be becoming a genre all of its own. The last couple of years have seen memorable novels by Julia Blackburn and Jane Rogers, among others. And now here is Alan Garner's first novel for adults, a reworking of the story of William Buckley, a Cheshire man who was transported in 1803, escaped into the bush and lived with Aborigines for 32 years before emerging and being granted a pardon. The theme is perhaps uncomfortably close to that of Patrick White's masterpiece A Fringe of Leaves, the inventive treatment of a shipwrecked Englishwoman's similar ordeal. But there the similarity ends; Garner is his own man, and anyone familiar with his children's books Elidor and Red Shift will recognise the house-style within the first few pages.

This short book is tersely compartmented: Buckley in Cheshire, on the transport ship, in the bush, with the Aborigines, back in Cheshire. Terse in other ways, too - staccato and allusive dialogue, a narrative style that can seem both stark and portentous: "William was wearing his Sunday best. He trimmed the freshly cut bough of oak with a hatchet. The young leaves glowed with a green that hurt. The light was in the leaves." This from the opening section, in which William and the other young people in the village take part in a pagan fertility rite in the church, conducted by the vicar, which precipitates William's transportation. There is folkloric incantation and prancing around, much tongue-twisting dialect, the obligatory mystic stone - called, I'm afraid, a swaddledidaff - and Granddad, who says: "My stars and garters and little apples! Yon blob-tongue won't be told, will he?" The spirit of Stella Gibbons begins to hover - you fear that the sukebind will rear its ugly head.

And then we get onto the transport ship and things pick up. At any rate, elliptical exchanges in thieves' cant are more invigorating, though it is wise to have a copy of Partridge's Dictionary of Slang to hand. The account of William's struggle to survive in the bush is better still - taut, powerful and credible. The gnomic hints of the first section are distanced - William's migraine vision of what sound suspiciously like Aboriginal dot patterns, his outburst in the church - a ''speaking with tongues'' that the reader grimly recognises for what it is. There is some supple writing: something "black, heaving and changing shape" which "broke into tatters in all directions and settled as crows in the trees". Garner's economy with language comes into its own here, creating pace and atmosphere.

William is rescued by the Aborigines, who believe him to be the ancestor Murrangurk, returned from the dead. Dialect and cant give way to the stately and formalised speech exchanged by the Aborigines, and William is subsumed into Murrangurk, his former identity apparently forgotten.

There is a scant 30 pages of life as Murrangurk. The coded hints dropped earlier are clarified - though always obliquely; Garner is never one to bang the reader over the head. The swaddledidaff fulfils its purpose, as we knew it would, in a puzzling experience which may or may not be a dream, but from which William surfaces with a peg through his nose, painted red.

It is hard to know what to make of this. Points are being made - about morality, about spiritual belief; about language, about aboriginal wisdom as opposed to the corruption which has landed William where he is. The abbreviated style conveys all this but also teeters on the edge of self-parody.

This is a book best appreciated in its entirety. Looking back, you recognise the careful intricacy of detail, the echoed to-and-fro, a unity which is invisible as you work through the allusions and the stylistic mannerisms. But this reader's problem was less with the manner than the message. The unease induced by William's hallucinatory experiences had turned into full-scale dismay by the end when what you feared would happen does, in an oak tree back in Cheshire.

I have difficulty with the idea of some sort of mystical resonance between Australian aboriginals and early 19th-century Cheshire peasants: ''The People had known the oak. One tree was all, and all the world one Dreaming." It may be an attractive idea, but I'm afraid that for this hard-headed late 20th-century woman it came across as distinctly fey.

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