Review of “Praiseworthy” by Alexis Wright – a grand Australian tale.
Throughout her writing career, Alexis Wright realized the impact of others telling stories for Aboriginal people in Australia. In a 2016 essay, she expressed her concern about a national narrative controlled by the most influential individuals, stating that it was always on her mind while attempting to share the stories of her people. The looming presence of this cloud is a constant reminder.
The fourth novel by the author takes physical shape in Praiseworthy, following the success of her previous works, The Swan Book in 2013 and Carpentaria in 2006, which won the Miles Franklin award. The story is set in a fictional town called Praiseworthy located in a hot and impoverished area on the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia. This vibrant and diverse novel is narrated by ten different “oracles” and includes elements such as Indigenous storytelling, poetic language, magical realism, and introspection about internalized hatred. These literary techniques pay homage to various literary influences, including Homer, Joyce, García Márquez, Fuentes, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
A thick, polluted and damaging dust cloud looms over Praiseworthy, described as a melancholy haze filled with the memories of past generations. The restless spirits mourn the loss of their land for over 200 years, and the destruction of a place they know better than anyone else when it comes to preserving the future. The novel presents the perspective of those who have endured “devastating times caused by the corrupt individuals who stole their ancestral territory.” In a scathing critique of assimilation, residents of the town who strive to become “superior white people” call for the Australian military to bomb the cloud. However, it remains intact despite the inaction of several prime ministers who do nothing to address the issue.
The main character, Cause Man Steel, is a “culture dreamer” who is able to hear the distress of every animal affected by fires. Despite this, he sees the potential for a better future for the marginalized black community with the rise of global warming. Inspired by the use of donkeys by the global poor instead of fossil fuels, Cause plans to create a successful donkey transport company as a solution to the climate crisis. His determination and grand ideas, influenced by the biography of Wright’s tracker, become the driving force of the story – a mix of adventure and idealism. He embarks on a journey in an old Falcon sedan to gather the toughest feral donkeys in northern Australia.
A prophet of doom and savior residing in the disputed territory of the town cemetery, Cause is betrayed by those he sought to rescue. His opponent and archenemy is Major Mayor, a notorious villain nicknamed Ice Pick for his sudden transformation to a white complexion. Continuously subservient to a parade of government officials, Ice Pick accuses his community members of being neglectful parents and encourages them to raise their children as white people do.
The wife of Cause, named Dance, is focused on her own pursuits, whether it be searching for butterflies or tracing her Chinese ancestry. Their 17-year-old son, known as Aboriginal Sovereignty, was given his name so he would never forget his identity. He is described as a thin and agile boxer, wearing ripped jeans. As a member of a struggling younger generation, he has experienced hardships far beyond his years. His father, however, remains oblivious to the turmoil that his son faces, unable to see the inner struggles within his mind. The boy falls in love with a girl who is two years younger than him.
Tommyhawk, an eight-year-old with a smart and arrogant attitude, aims to escape from his home in Praiseworthy by moving faster than the speed of sound. As he spends most of his time on the internet, he becomes vulnerable to false information, such as the belief that Indigenous communities are filled with child predators. In fear of being a victim himself, Tommyhawk decides to only tell white people what they want to hear and is indoctrinated into their world. This ultimately leads to a tragic event where Tommyhawk betrays his brother for his own selfish desires, resulting in police violence and the interference of foreign laws.
The story is set in 2008 during the Northern Territory intervention, which was led by Howard. This intervention was based on a report titled “Little Children Are Sacred” that focused on child sexual abuse. The novel addresses the issues of stolen generations, child suicides, and the lack of self-determination, and criticizes the false narratives pushed for political gain. Although the satire may seem repetitive, it is a passionate response to the constant repetition of these false narratives. With the recent rejection of the Indigenous voice to parliament on October 14th, many are feeling hopeless about the unchanging national narrative, so it may be necessary to repeat these criticisms again.
In her essay from 2016, Wright argues that Australia’s inability to confront the truth of its history is due to the ongoing conflict between different narratives. This epic tale takes a strong stance and highlights the potential consequences of successful assimilation: the loss of valuable knowledge for the betterment of humanity, gained from the vast “library” that is the country. However, amidst its mournful tone, there is also a sense of hope and resilience derived from a perspective spanning tens of thousands of years.