When I checked in at the Brisbane airport before going to the conference for the Oz Lit conference in Wellington earlier this year, I discovered the plane was delayed for three hours. I didn’t properly hear why, but I think it was something to do with the bad weather in Christchurch, which had a knock-on effect with other flights. I knew this would mean I’d run out of reading material, so I went to the newsagents, and Sue Woolfe’s new novel The Oldest Song in the World leapt out at me. The cover was gorgeous, with gold writing that mirrored the orange sand beneath a vast Australian sky, with a girl in a pale blue dress carrying her suitcase.
The story inside it was about Kate, a struggling linguistics student who is asked by her professor to travel to the desert to record the oldest song in the world, which can only be recorded by a woman. In a bid to save her appalling grades at university, and prompted by the chance to reconnect with a boy she loved in her youth, Kate agrees to her professor’s request. In the desert, she is forced to change her pace to align with that of the Indigenous people she lives among, and to learn their customs, manners and personalities. Eventually, she is trusted enough to gain the information she needs, and finds a resolution to the abrupt events of her childhood.
I have no doubt that Woolfe’s research for this novel was exhaustive, not least because she has done dedicated research for her earlier works, Leaning Towards Infinity, The Secret Cure and The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady. Much of the description of Indigenous life in the novel appears to be first hand, for Woolfe accompanied her daughter on a trip for work experience in a remote Aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory. She intended to stay for two weeks, but remained for more than 18 months. Her observations build a vivid picture, from erratic electricity, to overbearing personalities at the hospital, to the shallowness of visiting politicians. The scene of a school teacher forcing Indigenous kids to repeat their language after her, is superb (302-306). The teacher mispronounces their words and the kids remain silent with bewilderment until, in fury, she roars their butchered language back at them.
And yet jostling among these descriptions are clichéd phrases that, I would have thought, an established novelist would have edited away. For example, when she describes books of Indigenous stories Kate had almost thrown out, Woolfe writes: ‘I’d planned to extinguish unique stories from a culture not my own. I’d been like a barbarian sacking the libraries of the ancient world’ (272). While I understand that Woolfe is attempting to represent the gaucheness of white newcomers in Indigenous communities, the clunkiness of Kate’s first person narration often makes her seem unbelievable.
I also found there was something deeply unsettling about the concept of a white woman travelling from an academic institution – although she was ambivalently placed in that institution – into the desert to gain some kind of enlightenment from Indigenous people. My frustration reached its height when, after watching a ceremony, Kate wakes at dawn and hears a disembodied singing which she describes as:
a song that wasn’t quite music but was more than sound, a rising and falling like the sea, like a cloud, like the slow march of humanity, like the inevitable, majestic movement of a river.
These people and their ancestors had taught the old earth to sing, I reasoned. Or perhaps, this most ancient earth had taught them (313).
To me, this essentialises Indigenous people as gateholders to spirituality and ancient history, when their lives are far more multifaceted than this, not least because a large proportion of Indigenous people live in urban areas. The romantic image of the earth singing also seems dated, as is Kate’s appropriation of it. While Woolfe gently satirizes the posturing academics for whom Kate works, who want to use the song to bolster their careers, she runs the risk of framing Kate in the same way. For it seems that Kate takes something from this community – that is, her own self-awareness – without giving anything in return.
In her novel, Woolfe offers a captivating account of the life of an Indigenous community in remote Australia. However, the loose backstory of Kate’s history, combined with the two-dimensional nature of her character, means that the novel fails to coalesce, reading more like an anthropological account than a convincing story of a young woman’s journey towards emotional and intellectual maturity.