Australian opal of a novel

This is my review of The Shiralee by D’Arcy Niland.

Oppressed by the “captivity” of a job in Sydney, roaring in his ears “with its terrible pandemonious laughter”, Macauley returns to his life on the country roads of New South Wales, leaving his wife alone for long periods with their child. He is a stereotype of the macho Australian male, relishing a punch up or a drink with his mates, but he is also a good worker who has no difficulty finding work on sheep-shearing stations, building sites or sawmills. When he catches his wife in bed with another man, his first impulse is to snatch up his daughter, at least partly in revenge, and take her along on his travels, where she soon becomes a hindrance, a “shiralee” or burden far heavier to bear than his swag. The trouble is that her unshakeable trust in him , dogged affection despite his continual rebuffs and impressive resilience awake his conscience and emotional response to someone other than himself.

Macauley is portrayed as a flawed hero, virtually raping his girlfriend when still in his teens, irresponsibly putting at risk his daughter’s welfare, and neglecting his understandably resentful wife. Yet his basic decency is not in doubt, together with his need to be true to himself. As the old man called the “oracle of the north” assesses: “there’s a lot of good in you, but it’s buried deep and it’s a wild animal that has to be coaxed out into the light and tamed…does not come willingly because it is frightened for itself. Don’t lead two lives or both will be unhappy: lead one and lead it well”.

Published in the mid-1950s, this novel has the authentic ring of the author’s own experiences of life as an itinerant worker in his youth. What could be a sentimental and schmaltzy tale is avoided by an often tense and unpredictable chain of events, leavened with wry humour, and the distinctive style which conveys a strong sense of place, often daring in its play with stream of consciousness, as when Macauley recalls his brief attempt to live in the city and unwise decision to marry. The book is worth reading for the raw, fearlessly passionate prose alone, which sometimes goes over the top, untrammelled by any editor.

“The sky was overcast, all in a yeasty motion of sombrous hues ever darkening the earth. The lightning jiggled, sharp and brilliant as a blind shooting up against daylight in a black room. The ground shook with the rumble of tumbling thunder. The wind whuddered across the waste, scattering the roly-poly, not unlike a lot of sheep making a stupid run for it…The rain came with a few big drops, a hesitant rehearsal; then they heard it roaring over the plain, and saw it coming, a wall of grey between sky and earth.”

Recently revived, this novel reminds me of Steinbeck, and deserves to be better known.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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