Tag Archives: northern territory

‘The Build Up’ by Phillip Gwynne

I The Build Up by Phillip Gwynneloved Deadly Unna  and Nukkin Ya, so when I came across a remaindered copy of The Build Up I was delighted. I was looking forward to some of the insight and feeling that I’d loved about Gwynne’s writing. But the more I read into The Build Up, the more annoyed and bored I felt.

The story focuses on, as the blurb has it, ‘a female cop in the very male world of the Northern Territory Police Force’, and a lot of the early parts of the book really feel like yet another male writer trying to guesstimate what being an edgy hard woman is like. We hear a lot about how much Dusty hates her period, hates so many stereotypical female things, and discover that pap smears are horrible icky uncomfortable things. Not unusual, but feeling perfectly comfortable during one is also quite usual; hating pap smears is a pretty common stereotype of women written by men in my experience.

Then we are treated to some odd female politics at work. There’s some very creepy misogyny that gets passed off as normalcy, and this is weird twice over, because the protagonist is a woman and the main villains of the book appear to be men who commit sex crimes. I really don’t understand why Gwynne felt the need to keep emphasising MALE and FEMALE, STRONG MASCULINE FEMALE and WEAK BITCHY FEMALE.

The book seemed to be using a mystery involving sex crimes in the setting of the NT just so it could spam us with gritty sexism, rape, racist slurs, and Gwynne’s attempts perhaps to understand what goes on in the heads of us womb-bearing folk.

When Dusty picks up a cute foreigner, their bird-watching playdate turns into a crime scene. When he turns out to be in her line of work, but leaving the country, and married to a woman who wants children, and the plot seems to be hinting he’s Dusty’s One Twoo Wove, I closed the book and counted to ten so that I could calm down. This book probably wasn’t written with me in mind as its audience. Maybe it’s more accessible to people who haven’t actually ever had pap-smears (even my friends who find them excruciatingly painful don’t talk about them with the fear that Dusty does). I was defeated by it; I could not keep reading, even though some of it had made me smile and care about the characters.

Reading The Build Up, with all its slutty bitchy gook[sic] sex crime victims, I began worrying that Deadly Unna  and Nukkin Ya are just as unreadable to the Indigenous communities they portray. I began hoping that my concepts of Indigenous Australians weren’t influenced by any bias or stereotyping from those books. It is a dilemma in our media, with a lot of Indigenous culture and stories still filtered through privileged white eyes and ears into the mainstream, that makes me want to pull my hair out some days.

Here’s some positive reviews of The Build Up to balance out my reactions:

Tracey at My Four Bucks liked the portrayal of Darwin and its weather

Maxine at Petrona enjoyed the “grown up” humour

Shellyrae at Book’d Out likes the brutality, vibrancy and isolation of the Top End

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‘The Spirit of Barrumbi’ by Leonie Norrington

This is one of the books I’ve picked up at the Lifeline bookfair over the years.  It has sat in a pile of similar books inside my study, and I am not sure in which year I acquired it.  Written by Leonie Norrington, The Spirit of Barrumbi is not the first in the series but it is quite accessible.  Though it uses some (indigenous) language and very Australian slang, the context is often sufficient to understand the meanings of terms.  There is also a glossary at the back of the book.

The story, which I do not want to spoil too much, involves the young boy Dale and his brother Sean, as well as the members of the remote Northern Territory community of Long Hole.  While visiting Barrumbi, Dale has a dream that foreshadows some ominous events.  While he sleeps – and dreams – his older brother Sean sneaks away from the group to investigate a dangerous area that he has been told not to visit.

The Spirit of Barrumbi deals with topics that are not only rarely seen in Australian children’s literature, but that have indigenous spiritual significance and require a sensitive and highly informed basis to be carried off properly.  Norrington mentions on her site the issues that face non-indigenous writers and readers when handling culturally sensitive things like this, as well as the vital desperate need for more literature not only including indigenous characters but that is accessible to indigenous communities and children.

Within the story issues regarding racial identity, taboo knowledge and places, traditional law and punishment, and simply the very nature of life in remote north Australia are handled so well that I am slightly in awe.  The present tense that so often irritates me in fiction carries a sense in the prose of the immediacy of childhood and the differences of perceptions of time and space in different places and cultures.

What is most striking is not the culture – though that is wonderful – or the language, but the childhood.  A lot of the story is told through playing, curiosity and the mistakes that all children make while learning.  The voices of the characters, especially the children, are so vivid I could hear them in my head.  The way that parents dismiss the children, too, and reprimand them feels far more natural than what I have found in most children’s literature.

I am in love with Norrington’s writing for the themes and stories and indigenous cultural depth, with the comfortable Australian feel of her prose.  I am impressed with her writing and characterisations.   Envious.  J.K. Rowling would kill house elves(I imagine) to be able to approximate the spontaneity and life in Norrington’s characters.  In many ways I loved this book for the same reasons that I enjoy reading Enchanted glass; I resonated with the flaws in the characters and thus they came alive for me.  Whether you have an interest in children’s literature, subtle fantasy/supernatural themes, indigenous Australian or just Australian culture, you should make sure to look Norrington up.

Other reviews of The Spirit of Barrumbi:

A basic summary of the plot including spoilers I omitted at Aussie Reviews

A short review at Rollercoaster, the A(ustralian)BC’s youth platform