Books

Lia Hills
The Crying Place

Saul, a mid-30s drifter, finds out his childhood friend Jed has committed suicide. Skipping the funeral, he sets out from Sydney on an epic trip across their homeland to find answers. Travelling to the fictional community of Ininyingi in Pitjantjatjara country, all he has to go on is a single photograph of Nara, an Aboriginal woman and Jed’s former lover.

The cover suggests The Crying Place might be a crime novel, yet the slow pace renders it anything but. Lia Hills, a Victoria-based poet and translator, has aimed not for a page-turner but an exploration of grief. This is a coming of age story, both for individuals and the nation. In the process Hills addresses Australian history, rampant racism and the hold the landscape has over us.

Crucial are the traditions and language, which Hills took the time to learn during more than four years of visits to Central Australia, of the Pitjantjatjara people. But here’s the crux: despite being more than 400 pages, the novel feels both too crammed with information – Hills has done her research and wants you to know – and too slight in impact.

The central spectre of Jed is problematic – he is sketched out in dreamy, abstract flashbacks that make it hard to care about what happened to him and why. Hills can turn a beautiful phrase but too often she overwrites. Saul feels the desert “calling me, a great untapped expanse, like a secret you didn’t know you had”. Jed is described in idyllic if improbable terms as having a great tan and “hair the colour of sea spray” (according to Dulux, at least, a muted greenish-blue).

An author’s note fleshes out some of the difficulties Hills faced. On a number of occasions “the central story had to bend around requested changes or new pieces of information” from Aboriginal elders, representative organisations and the Australia Council. “It was more important to respect this process than adhere to the notion of poetic licence. It also made the novel feel more collaborative. More real.” And more hamstrung. It’s tough trying to be creative while, simultaneously, attempting to appease different groups.

The Crying Place’s plot never truly takes off and the payoff, when it comes, is underwhelming. This is a book that feels safe and worthy rather than profound. Maybe some poetic licence wouldn’t have been a bad thing, after all.  EA

Allen & Unwin, 480pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 11, 2017 as "Lia Hills, The Crying Place ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: EA