Lost in the desert's tune

The Oldest Song in the World
By Sue Woolfe

SUE Woolfe's fourth novel, The Oldest Song in the World, is on the one hand a venture into new fictional territory - the remote Aboriginal settlement of Gadaburumili, seven hours of rough road from Alice Springs. Yet, as her acknowledgments show, this was terrain and a society she had explored thoroughly, for nearly two years, with the help of people ''black and white, who talked and sat and walked with me''. Woolfe declares that they educated her ''in what became a pilgrimage''.

That is a key clue to the shape of her narrative, which is in the long tradition of quest fiction in Australia. Where is personal or spiritual revelation to be found? Woolfe's protagonist, mature-aged linguistics student Kate, searches for answers in the deserts of the centre of the continent. Questers need guides and mentors. Will hers be among the Aboriginal, Djemuranga-speaking people, or one of the European Australians, full of passionate ambivalence?

Questioning as much as questing is at the heart of the novel. Kate seeks to solve the mysteries of her family life, in particular as these concerned her father's relations with Diana, their neighbour on a tidal river much like the Hawkesbury, and her own with Diana's son, Ian, who is six years older than Kate. Woolfe convinces us of how and why Kate is sent out from her Sydney university to the desert to record an old woman, in particular the ''Poor Things song'' that will be lost with her passing. That song may be, as the title of the novel proclaims, the oldest in the world.

At the same time, Woolfe asks for our consent to an even less-likely possibility: that the mercurial middle-aged man, Adrian, who runs the settlement's medical clinic, may be the Ian about whom she still obsesses, and who is, for her, indelibly connected to ''the terrible loss of that childhood, that river, those people''.

Through Kate, Woolfe brings an unsparing gaze to the life of this remote community, the ''desolate, decrepit mimicry of a white suburb'', but in particular to the predators upon it. They are often Aboriginal, whether grog runners or abusers of women. They are also such whites as the doctor who buys, on the cheap, paintings of desert artists for the gallery he hopes to set up with his girlfriend in Perth (''They're happy with very little, don't you know?''); the appalling headmaster, Craig, who despises the children who won't attend his school. Instead, he thinks of his own two infants - ''We can't raise our Einsteins in this filth, with these primitives''; and the electioneering politician who tries to woo the ''grandmothers'' in the cause of education.

This is the funniest of the novel's set-pieces. Woolfe's satire is blunt and its import is pessimistic. The few idealistic white people are given to self-centred and destructive dreaming. The majority are corrosively cynical. Of the latter, one Aboriginal woman bleakly remarks that ''they hunt us away''.

The chief, and always ambiguous, drama of The Oldest Song in the World concerns Kate and Adrian. He is ''indispensable'' but capricious, overbearing, bombastic. She is both self-deprecating - ''I was always appeasing'' - but enraged: ''I swore a lifetime of revenge on people who made me feel invisible.''

Woolfe deploys much energy in maintaining the tension between them, and in showing its effect on far-from-disinterested bystanders. Her prose veers between the flabby - ''the menacing sun that argued with my certainty'' - and the authoritative. At one moment, Kate stills even Adrian when she declares that her research (and, by implication, Woolfe's) is not about careers, but ''amazement''.

That is the effect that Woolfe bravely seeks in the novel, knowing how tenuous it is likely to be. She has complexly coupled stories of familial and cultural misapprehensions, the will to make good, and the harm that such efforts entail.

■ Peter Pierce is editor of The Cambridge History of Australian Literature. He interviews novelist Patrick Gale at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Friday.

The story Lost in the desert's tune first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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