Stark white mourning caps, moulded from gypsum and weighing up to seven kilos, were fitted over the shaven skulls of Aboriginal mourners in the Simpson Desert; the grieving period lasting until the caps fell off and were laid on the grave. Not to be properly mourned was a terrible thing.
A deep and poetic probing of the nature of grief, Lia Hills’ The Crying Place is the story of Saul, a 30-something ‘whitefella’, whose closest friend Jed has died by suicide, and who, in the process, finds that “the past is a living, breathing thing.”
Saul’s quest to understand what had happened to his best friend leads him first to a rundown boarding house that Jed had said “suited his wanderlust”. Inserted in a poetry book, Saul finds a picture of Nara, an Aboriginal woman, of whom he later recalls Jed saying, “She’s become my country.” Rather than attend a Hobart funeral service, Saul drives north to find her. “They’d bury him in their own way. In the end neither Jed nor I would have a say in it.”
Between Melbourne and Coober Pedy the back story of Jed and Saul emerges. Flashbacks to their Derwent riverside adolescence and subsequent adventuring, motorcycling through the Sahara De-sert and other remote locales, are interwoven with sketches of the people and places they encountered along the way.
After Saul meets German-born Ziggy – “I’m the right kind of illegal immigrant. Right colour.” – they drive up to the McDonnell ranges to Arrernte country. Despite a mutual attraction, Saul drives off west and alone, bound for Pitjantjatjara country; trying to track down Jed’s ghost, as Ziggy suggests. He finds Nara in a remote Western Desert community and gains some insights. How to “mourn what must be mourned” and that “no man burdened with guilt ever put a sure foot into the future.”
Although there is some stylistic unevenness – possibly a product of the combination of the voice-recognition software Hills used to ‘write’ the first draft, and the modifications made, as is made clear in the Author’s Note, after the book was checked with Aboriginal Australian organisations and individuals as to ensure “what material … was appropriate to include and in what form” – this intriguing and subtle novel ultimately reads as a metaphor for the tragedies of failure to comprehend and appreciate the oldest of Australian cultures.
John Mancy is a former barrister, foreign correspondent, publisher, editor, radio newsreader and casual law lecturer.