I have a history of disliking award winning novels. I have a history of particularly disliking award winning Australian novels. I didn’t mind Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda but I didn’t really enjoy Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, and I thought the ending to Dirt Music was ridiculous. So it was with much trepidation that I decided to read the 2005 Miles Franklin Award winning The White Earth, written by Andrew McGahan and published by Allen and Unwin.
The novel is set in a fictional region of the real-life Darling Downs, west of Brisbane. It charts a year in the life of a young boy named William who, having recently lost his father to a fire, moves along with his mother into a dilapidated mansion – Kuran House. Kuran House is owned by William’s Great Uncle and the history of the great House and its inhabitants is woven throughout the story. It is part family saga, part supernatural thriller, part history lesson, and deals with some heavy themes including Native Title.
I really enjoyed the first ten or so chapters of this book where the scene was set and I got a glimpse into both the past and the present, describing how life at Kuran House and in the surrounding district was shaped; however, as the novel progressed I began to struggle. The main protagonist, William, is said to be eight years old. The dialog, thoughts and emotions attributed to William seem far too advanced for a child of that age and the adults seem to interact with him in a manner that suggest he is much older than eight. Had he been perhaps thirteen or fourteen years old I may have swallowed it, but my inability to believe in William experiencing the events of the novel as an eight year old really ruined the story for me. Additionally, in the final third of The White Earth the narrative becomes very dialogue heavy, almost as if McGahan lost his ability to describe events without dialogue and decided to have each character spell out every thought, action and decision verbally. The ‘he said / she said’ seemed a little … basic? Certainly not what I would expect from a Miles Franklin Winning novel. And then there’s the bunyip…
So once again here I am, left unsatisfied with what is supposed to be great Australian literature. I feel very disloyal. Many critics loved the novel – maybe I’m just missing the point.
It’s ok though, I’ve found another Australian author to read. Maybe not so award winning … but so far I’m loving her book! Stay tuned for a review.