A review of The Crying Place by Lia Hills

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Crying Place
By Lia Hills
Allen & Unwin
ISBN:9781760293710, March 2017, 480pages, paperback

I heard Lia Hills talk about The Crying Place at The Newcastle Writers Festival this year and knew I had to get hold of the book. The research she did for the book sounded meticulous and fascinating, and her sensitivity, linguistic acumen and perceptions struck me as poetic and powerful. I knew that the book would be good, and it was.  The Crying Place is clearly the work of a poet, though it’s prose.  The writing is tightly controlled and yet rich, deep and evocative, touching on a range of questions and issues about love, grief, loss, prejudice, trauma,  what it means to be an Australian, and what it means to be a human. The Crying Place  was longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Award and it is easy to see why. The book is subtle and sophisticated but never showy, rooting perception in the land, in a sense of discovery and gentle exploration. The story follows the journey of Saul, a young Tasmanian man whose life becomes unglued when he hears that his best friend Jed has committed suicide. Saul traces Jed’s steps back to Alice Springs in the hope of finding answers. Of course, and I doubt this is a spoiler, what Saul finds on his difficult and complex journey, is himself.

There is a solitary quality to Saul’s first person narrative, which isn’t exactly stream of consciousness, though the truncated sentences and visual imagery has a poetic and interior feel. The reader discovers this landscape through Saul’s perceptions and they continually return to the elemental – the earth, the rhythm of time, the ocean:

I walked towards the road, the stars astonishingly clear, collected in lactic forms: mythological, domestic, a god’s belt. It was ark enough to need a torch now and I lit up the graded track in both directions—to the north; to the south, where the lights from the uranium mines at Roxby Downs glowed nuclear, a bump on the horizon. Let the space breathe me in, like being at the edge of an ocean that connects you to all oceans, to every other shore. (81)

Throughout his journey, the relationship between Saul and Jed is revealed in memories and flashbacks that are stimulated by the images Saul comes across on his journey: a certain light, the shape of a rock, a photograph or a bird’s call. The flashbacks work in seamlessly with the present tense narrative, as if this were the story of both of these men, the missing Jed exerting a tangible presence on the landscape that Saul walks in and transposing the present with the past. It’s obvious that their adventures – through Europe, Africa, and Asia – up mountains and across deserts.  These scenes become clues to what Saul is seeking, connected in some way with the photo in his back pocket, taken from Saul’s bedside, of a Pitjantjatjara woman named Nara. Saul’s travels to Coober Pedy, Alice Springs, and then to a remote fictional Pitjantjatjara community called Ininyingi, where he has been invited to meet with Nara. Along the way Saul bumbles into a few relationships, including one with a German woman named Ziggy, who reminds Saul of Jed and takes him as far as Alice Springs. At Ininyingi, Saul meets Nara and her son Roopie, as well as Thaddeaus, the only long time white resident of Ininyingi. Though Saul never quite loses the sheen of being an outsider, he develops an affinity with the community and begins to understand something of collective grief. He also learns how to look deeply, not so much into the hearts of people, but at the world around him, finding a truth in the natural world which transcends even his own grief. Hills conjures the desert and its flora/fauna with the capability of a poet, and a perfect combination of understanding and wonder which mirrors Saul’s character beautifully:

The deepest part of the waterhole was still, milky, reflections on its smooth surface creating an inverted world, one in which all the coluors were dulled.  I sat in an alcove of the bank and waited for the sun, my breath tangible as it escaped between my cupped fingers.  Something leapt. Dived before I could make out what it was, a ripple spreading out from its point of entry, making squiggles then cubes of the trees. The pair of black cockatoos flew overhead again, connecting dusk with dawn. (164)

There are so many currents which come together in this book. Hills never loses the thread of Saul’s story, or the mystery of Jed’s death, both of which drive the narrative forward slowly, but there are many stories in The Crying Place.  There is the racism, pain of displacement and its subsequent substance abuse that has given rise to that the community of Ininyingi. There is a story about power and powerlessness in all its permeations, about grief and coping, and about Saul’s confusion as he enters a culture which is entirely alien to him and yet also a vital part of his own story and something he must begin to understand in order to move forward with is life.  The Crying Place is a deeply moving, powerful story which is as pleasurable to read as it is important. In Hills’ capable hands, Saul’s story becomes the story of all of us and about the power of story itself and how community and shared empathy can change a story:

A story is like a river. It has a source.  It has its tributaries, some as far-reaching and expansive as memory, others a thin trickle, so tenuous their influx is barely noticed. Some stories arrive like torrents, unpredictable and short-lived, whereas others are always there, broad and slow-moving and dependable, their undercurrents barely detectable on the surface. (221)

Hills has written a beautiful, rich novel, full of poetry, deep appreciation of landscape and a sensitive exploration of the nature of the human heart and what it means to carve out a life, especially in the face of deep grief.