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Alex Miller: Coal Creek

May 26, 2014

Coal CreekAlex Miller, Coal Creek, 2013

“Things are not what they seem” should be the premise of any novel, according to Melissa Lucashenko: “A stranger rides into town, and things are not what they seem.”

In Coal Creek the strangers are the new policeman, Daniel Collins, and his wife Esme, coastal people who have moved to the small town of Mount Hay in the hinterland ranges of North Queensland after the Second World War. To them it seems that Mount Hay is run down and needs fixing. They do not notice that it is actually a strong community that functions well.

Coal Creek is narrated by Bobby, who has worked as a stockman since he was 10 and now, at the age of 20, takes a job as offsider to the new policeman. Through his eyes we experience the cultural gap between coastal people and high country people – their utterly different ways of seeing the world. Daniel and Esme need to know things, either from books or by asking questions. Mysteries bother them – they want things clear cut. In contrast, the locals avoid questions. “You will know when you need to know,” says Bobby. Any questions usually get answered by events. Daniel and Esme do not understand that some matters are never spoken about. Critically, they do not appreciate the local way of dealing with trouble: giving it a bit of clearance to sort itself out before stepping in. It is their urge to intervene that drives the narrative of Coal Creek.

Miller uses this setting of cultural misunderstanding to explore friendship and love in a way that reminded me of Shakespearean tragedy. Bobby’s first friend is Ben, a fellow stockman with a violent past who may be mellowing under the influence of his new partner, an indigenous teenager. Bobby’s second friendship is with Irie, the Collins’s twelve-year-old daughter. She is teaching him to read and write, and it is her growing understanding and love of the range country that nourishes their friendship. Bobby is a person of integrity, and there is no sexual element in the relationship, although he does dream of the distant time when she will become a woman. Others will not see the friendship as he does.

Alex Miller

Alex Miller

From the beginning we know that the cultural clash will lead to tragedy – this is foreshadowed so many times that when terrible things begin to happen it is almost a relief. There is a feeling of inevitability about these events, yet they are anything but inevitable. All it needed was for one side to step outside the confines of their worldview for a moment – for the Collinses to pause and consider before rushing in, or for Bobby to give them more information which might have induced them to do so. Sometimes I was annoyed by Bobby’s silence in the face of the Collins’s misconceptions, but I accepted that he was as much blinkered by his cultural presumptions as the Collinses were by theirs.

The most remarkable quality of this novel is Bobby’s voice. He is unschooled, so his grammar is consistently incorrect, replete with double negatives and plural noun-singular verb combinations. Yet it is a pleasure to read. The language is poetic, with a rhythm that would not let me go. Miller has said that he had to take care that the incorrectness was correct. Another remarkable achievement is that through Bobby’s narrative we empathise not only with him, but also with Daniel and Esme. We understand them, and can relate to their panicked attempts to protect their daughters.

For me, Bobby’s voice made everything in the book vivid and memorable. Other Miller novels that I have read are fading from my memory, but I am confident that Coal Creek will not. It is an immensely satisfying book.

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