Friday, 18 May 2012

Western Australian Writing Review: Coonardoo by Katharine Susannah Prichard

Coondardoo by Katharine Susannah Prichard
Printed and bound by Halstead Press, Sydney (1956)
First published by Jonathan Cape 1929

In the early decades of the Twentieth Century, on a rural North West property, two children grow up.  One is an Aboriginal girl named Coonardoo, who charms those around her with her disturbing beauty; the other is Hugh "Youie" Watt, the son of the station owner.  Hugh and Coonardoo are drawn to one another but must never act upon their feelings.  Relations between 'gins' and white men are looked upon unfavourably by most.  Hugh's detestable neighbour, Sam Geary, believes that all men like to indulge, but no one is honest enough to admit to it, and he bets Hugh that it is only a matter of time before Hugh and Coonardoo consummate their feelings... and if Hugh won't, Sam will.

Widely regarded as one of Western Australia's first novelists, Katharine Susannah Prichard has earned her place in the canon with her unique take on Western Australian life.  Her novel, Coonardoo was one of the first Western Australian novels, and takes place in the far North near Roebourne.  

The book is unstereotypical in its approach, following a narrative arc which is familiar and appropriate to the Australian storyteller without being predictable.  Similar to Colleen McCulloch's The Thorn Birds at times, Coonardoo is a family epic, where the Watt family is watched over by the observer, the loyal Coonardoo of the title.  Her life is secondary to theirs and the fate of their homestead, Wytaliba. Interestingly enough, Wytaliba is a native word for "the fire is all burnt out" according to the provided glossary."  (This adds an extra layer of meaning to the saga.)

One of the things which irked me about this book was the strength of detail put into understanding the white characters, particularly Hugh, Bessie, Mollie and Phyllis was not afforded so much to the Aboriginal characters.  Many of them seem like caricatures, striking up familiarities in their speech with Amerindians in old Westerns.  Coonardoo herself seems like the perfect vessel.  She is beautiful and she does as she is told but has no strong feeling or emotions of her own.  She just is.  From a modern stand point, the perception of the Other in this novel seemed somewhat racist, although I would not say that the book is a racist one by intent.  

I did not want to like this book.  I viewed it as a kind of relic of Western Australian literature, at once heavy and simplistic.  

However, Prichard's writing is endearing.  In the tradition of a campfire yarn, it is impossible not to relax into the feeling of being told a story.  From the point of view of studying Western Australian Writing, I cannot think of a better writer to start with.

(For more information on Katharine Susannah Prichard, and her life, and the foundation in her name, click here.)

I give this book three out of five freshly branded horses.

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