Books

Nardi Simpson
Song of the Crocodile

Yuwaalaraay author Nardi Simpson’s debut novel, Song of the Crocodile, begins with a vision of the sign welcoming visitors to the country town of Darnmoor, “the Gateway to Happiness”. “The sign taunts a fool into feeling some sense of achievement, that you have reached a destination at the very least,” writes Simpson, before continuing: “Yet … Darnmoor itself is nothing.”

The novel follows the Billymil family across three generations, primarily focusing on Margaret; her daughter, Celie; and Celie’s daughter, Mili. They live just outside Darnmoor, along the pathway to the tip, known as Old Black Road, where Indigenous people have been forced to live. The family exists in a state of tension with white settlers, which builds over the course of the novel: those tensions reveal themselves to be smokescreens for shocking acts of violence and cruelty visited upon members of the family.

Throughout the novel, there are stunning moments of perfect fluidity and permeability, where Simpson’s deep engagement with the ancestries and cosmology of her people comes through. The novel unearths Simpson’s deeper concerns about care for Country – it is the connections between land and people, and the brutal and conceptual ruptures of those connections, that she is interested in. She also raises questions about what we owe to each other, to our descendants and to our ancestors.

In one scene a pregnant Mili and her husband sit under an old tree by a riverbank and share a highly charged and tender moment. “As their feet dangled over the old waterway … the tree smiled, then asked the breath of the ghost breeze, the one that springs from nowhere, to blow upon them, bear witness, and seal their fate.”

Simpson’s writing attains a rare quality of grace in the novel, the prose lyrical and grounded at the same time. There’s a fullness to her characters’ voices, their speech peppered with Yuwaalaraay inflections and words. Margaret, Celie and Mili are watched over by their ancestors, who are preparing themselves for when they’ll be needed to sing the titular “Song of the Crocodile”. Simpson skilfully weaves the profound into the everyday, with the women of the Billymil family tracing thousands of years of language, culture and ancestry through simple acts of living, a potent contrast to the inhabitants of Darnmoor, whose material richness belies an impoverished relationship with each other and with Country.

Khalid Warsame

Hachette, 416pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2020 as "Nardi Simpson, Song of the Crocodile".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Reviewer: Khalid Warsame