A review of The White Earth by Andrew McGahan

This is a passionate, powerful and beautifully written story which contains all of the elements of good fiction, and is the culmination of a skill which has been growing with each of McGahan‘s exceptional novels. In The White Earth McGahan’s prose maintains that difficult balance between lush, evocative description, a psychologically wrought narrative, and a strong plotline which encompasses a strong politic, and concrete sense of time and place.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The White Earth
By Andrew McGahan
Allen & Unwin
ISBN 1-74114-612-7, 392pp, $22.95

At the delicate age of eight and a half, William, the narrative focus of The White Earth, watches the mushroom cloud explosion of his life slowly grow as it destroys his father and farm in a tractor accident. At the very moment that he begins to comprehend the enormity of what has happened to him, his mother delivers him a “painful, piercing smack” across his ear, blaming him for watching the fire and not waking her. The climactic moment of William’s tragedy opens the book in prologue, and creates a permanent centre of pain in Williams’ life which shapes and drives the story as it unfolds through Williams’ scarred perspective.

The first chapter begins with William and his depressive mother leaving the farm to live with William’s well-to-do great uncle John McIvor at his large run down cattle farm, Kuran Station, on the edge of the Darling Downs. McIvor takes a mysterious interest in William, and it is through Williams’ eyes that we work through the reasons for this interest and William’s intended role in the future of Kuran Station. In many ways, this is a Bildungsroman: a coming of age story where we watch William grow from a naïve child excited by his potential to a young man, full of the self-doubt and sorrow that comes with wisdom. But there are many threads woven together in this complex and beautifully detailed novel, which makes it more than simply the story of one child’s growth.

The backdrop to the novel is the Mabo decision which was handed down by Australia‘s High Court in 1992, granting indigenous rights in the Torres Straits. Essentially the ruling said that the theory of “terra nullius” (the land belonging to no one) was inappropriate to apply to an already occupied land, and that therefore, under certain conditions, original land-dwellers might have the right to reclaim land occupied/purchased without consent from the original owners. McIvor spends his time producing a newsletter for an anti-Mabo political group, a “league of concerned citizens;” his own anxiety fuelled by an almost pathological fear of losing the station. His complex desires are complicated by a skewed relationship with his daughter, and a memory of rejection from the previous owners, the Whites, whose own ownership was tainted with the blood of the indigenous people they displaced. The land contains its own secrets though, which reveal themselves to William in a startling and feverish way, partly as a result of the increased sensitivity caused by the physical pain he carries.

While McIvor’s fears are motivated by something more complex (though not necessarily more noble) than racism, the almost simple racism which underlies McIvor’s colleagues‘ participation culminates in another climatic moment involving fire–a recurring motif in this novel. Although William is a thoughtful, introspective boy who tries hard to do his best against the conflicting demands placed on him by his mother, uncle, and his own sense of pride and desire, his is assailed by the hatred and fear which spurs the story forward:

But the men in robes howled him down, pushed him aside. Some people in the crowd were cheering now, while others were fleeing down the hill. Gunfire was ringing out again, shots fired wildly into the darkness, and white sheets seemed to dance everywhere, in and out of the stones. Amidst the chaos William caught a glimpse of his uncle, sprawled on the ground, his face contorted in pain. William tried to reach him, but was shoved this way and that, and fell to the ground himself. He rose to this knees and gazed up. The burning cross loomed directly above him, bright and crackling with angry noise. Even as he watched, the timber blistered and bubbled and turned to ash, and clouds of grey smoke billowed off into the wind, obliterating the night sky.(216)

The narrative is driven by pain, which has seeped into the soil of the land, and seeped into Williams‘ brain (and perhaps McIvor‘s brain too in a more metaphorical way). The land beneath Kuran station is so rich with beauty, secrets, and ghosts that it takes on the role of a fully developed character, as experienced through William‘s senses, primarily the auditory:

And more than anything else it was a world of noises. The roar of wind as it swept over the hills and set the trees thrumming. The piping of birds, crystal in the high air. The bubble of streams, and the distant rush of water plunging into chasms. The humps of wallabies as they lept through the undergrowth, and the scrabble of bush turkeys, clustering around camp sites. (98)

It is the audible world that ultimately takes hold of William, as the pretend illness his mother uses to keep him from school turns into a real one, and he begins to struggle with the pain in his ear and fever. The secret ghosts inhabiting the land, and the way William seems to understand it, way beyond what McIvor had originally intended, along with the developing buzzing and pain in his middle ear create an extraordinary amount of tension which keeps the reader turning pages quickly. This is almost in spite of the beautiful descriptions which would otherwise slow the narration. The reader wants to read slowly, but is drawn to uncover what is wrong with William, and what McIvor expects of him. William is a compelling, sympathetic character in the midst of a compelling narrative. Less compelling, and deliberately so, is Williams’ mother, who seems to be suffering from lethargic depression, mingled with the desperation for William to improve her material status. Her disinterest in his well being, and great interest in her own material gain at almost any cost is one which further increases the reader’s sympathy for William.

Interspersed with Williams story is McIver’s backstory, which is revealed in small bursts. It’s a story of a man’s whose desires are shaped, like Williams, by the thwarted desire of a parent. While a station hand to the White Family at the original Kuran House, McIver learns about his own limitations, and develops a hunger for ownership and power which leaves him barren, despite the loving wife and daughter he later has. When he chooses financial gain over his daughter’s safety and well being, he destroys his family and turns self-hatred into internal desperation, which ultimate brings William into the story as a pawn. The role of McIver’s daughter Ruth, who begins as an outsider, and rival to William for Kuran, and ends up in an altogether different role, is almost a story in itself, and one which McGahan handles with a similar delicacy to the rest of the story.

This is a passionate, powerful and beautifully written story which contains all of the elements of good fiction, and is the culmination of a skill which has been growing with each of McGahan‘s exceptional novels. In The White Earth McGahan’s prose maintains that difficult balance between lush, evocative description, a psychologically wrought narrative, and a strong plotline which encompasses a strong politic, and concrete sense of time and place. There is a tremendous amount of symbolism, from the use of the word “white” in the title, the previous owners of Kuran, the white bones of the aboriginals beneath the earth, the white sheets burning on the cross, to the use of fire–the fire which consumed Williams’ father and farm, the fire which William keeps seeing in different guises, or the fire which McIvor fears. This is a novel rich in visual imagery, symbolism, emotional power, and a forward motion that continues beyond the book‘s confines. It conjures a history which is every bit as compelling as its characterisations, and a sense of immediacy which draws the reader directly into its poetically rich and taut prose:

He made it as far as the empty pool. Beyond it, he could see that the whole hillside was lit by the blaze behind him, the trees lurid against the greater darkness of night, sentinels of the station bearing mute witness to the fall. He was incapable of any tears of his own, but the scene before him was misty, blurred by mournful sheets of rain. Far out upon the plains there were lights moving, a file of them with revolving points of blue and red, distant rescuers racing along the Powell road. The pool waited like a grave to receive him, and his ears pulsated as if the fire was inside his head.(369)

The White Earth is a wonderful thought provoking and haunting novel which stays with the reader long after the book is complete. The great plethora of prizes it has won, from the “The Age” and “The Courier-Mail” Book of the Year Awards for 2004, the Best Book for South East Asia and South Pacific Region of the Commonwealth Writers’ prize in the same year, and the 2005 Miles Franklin Award are no surprise.