Ambelin Kwaymullina & Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Catching Teller Crow
Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina are a sister-and-brother team of Aboriginal writers who come from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Catching Teller Crow isn’t their first collaborative effort, but it is their first young-adult novel. A fusion of ghost story and crime thriller, it also combines poetry and fiction to striking and exciting effect.
As in the 2015 BBC miniseries River, Catching Teller Crow presents us with a detective who is accompanied by the ghost of his policing partner – though here the detective, Michael Teller, is accompanied by the ghost of his teenage daughter, Beth, who was killed in a car accident. In fact, “Beth Teller. Ghost-Detective”, as she describes herself, is one of the novel’s narrators. The other narrator is Isobel Catching, a witness to the crime the Tellers attempt to solve.
That crime involves a fire at a children’s home, but the mystery of arson soon develops into a plot involving disappearances, drugs, murder and darker things still. Beth, however, is spared a lot of the gory details – as is the intended YA audience – as Beth’s protective father forbids her from entering crime scenes. Poetry also plays a shielding role. Isobel’s eyewitness testimony is presented in the form of poetry, providing a supernatural account of her experiences, which Beth understands literally but which Beth’s father interprets as an allegorical version of the crimes that have occurred in the real world.
The chapters of poetry are set in a “beneath-place”, where Isobel is dragged by “The Fetchers” and offered up to “The Feed”. She also interacts with the mysterious and ambivalent Crow. Isobel compares her experience to the trials of her grandmother, who was also stolen and imprisoned “in a bad place”, as part of the Stolen Generation, so that the poetic account of the “beneath-place” resonates historically as well.
Dorothy Porter’s crime verse novel The Monkey’s Mask is an interesting point of comparison, given the ways it similarly highlights the problem of reading poetry as central to the task of resolving mystery. The poetry in both books is also similarly accessible, Gothic in tone, narrative driven and fast paced. If anything, the pages turn more quickly when it comes to the poems than when it comes to the prose, but as Michael’s detective work suggests, slowing down and attending to the imagistic and metaphorical richness of the language is certainly worthwhile. KN
Allen & Unwin, 208pp, $19.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 8, 2018 as "Ambelin Kwaymullina & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, Catching Teller Crow". Subscribe here.