There is a mesmerising scene in Carpentaria when Joseph Midnight is asked if he has seen the fugitive Will Phantom, a young local Aboriginal man who is single-handedly waging a guerrilla war against a large lead ore mining company. He eyes the questioner and astutely spots him as a ‘Southern blackfella … a real smart one, educated, acting as a guide. He got on a tie, clean white shirt and a nice suit.’ His response is several pages long, a vivid, vernacular stream of detail about the essence of Will: his relationship with his father and his country, his difference to other men and women, his ability to control his own fate. ‘Oh! Poor me – What a history. This lad was writing memory with a firestick that made lightning look dull. So if you want to know what Will Phantom looked like – he looked like that.’ Midnight’s reverent delivery has lacerating wit; he plays his listener for the outsider he is, yet he does it with a tone of sincerity. Whether it is the charismatic voice of her omniscient narrator or the everyday dialogue spoken by her characters, Wright recognises the strength of the oral tradition as a satirical and ironic tool. The combination of storytelling on a mythic scale with the guile of the knowing look generates the energy required to drive this genius epic.
Carpentaria is set in the small town of Desperance. It is a place with a stratified population. The deeply insecure white community occupies ‘Uptown’ with its neat, clean houses and its unquestioning sense of entitlement. The Aboriginal population, represented by the ‘Pricklebush’ mob and divided into two feuding camps, clings to the eastern and western fringes of the town. Much of the dramatic action of the novel is derived from local politics and from the intensity of the surrounding landscape and the extremes of the tropical climate. The narrator guides the reader through the ancient gulf terrain with a tone that can switch from reverence to cackling derision in a flash. The feeling that you are an outsider, an interloper, never leaves you – one minute you are being confided in, whether it is about local gossip or the movements of ancestral spirits – the next you are left stranded and completely lost.