The Voices by Susan Elderkin

DATE FINISHED: May 6th, 2012

RATED: *** (3.5)

SYNOPSIS:  As an adolescent, Billy is most at home out in the bush, watching the kangaroos or collecting stones or – a little later – adventuring with the mysterious Maisie. As an adult, he is admitted to hospital bearing injuries more usually unique to the aboriginals, and in his delirium, explains to a doctor about the voices he has not heard since he was much younger – until recently. The spirits are lethargic, and the wind is restless, but what is Billy to them, anyway?

THOUGHTS:   This original novel, begins with a captivating story, narrated by spirits who are all but invisible to those around them, and a playful, attention-seeking breeze. Billy’s childhood hooks the reader; and his beautiful, reluctant mother and his kindhearted but socially awkward father are equally well-rendered. The narrative skips about as playfully as the character of the wind, so it takes a little while to settle into, but Elderkin’s unique prose style is a delight to read, full of wry humour and concise imagery, which vividly evoke the Australian outback, a parched wilderness landscape and the life within it.

Unfortunately, some of the playfulness is lost as the novel progresses.  Although the characterisation is spot-on throughout, the message the story has set out to convey becomes increasingly heavy-handed and as a result also a little trite.  The prose is so enjoyable in and of itself that it is a shame Elderkin could not allow her themes (Australia’s treatment of its aborigine communities, and the deterioration of the spirit-world)  to emerge more subtly through the characters and their stories,  rather than spelling them out quite so literally, on several occasions. .

I would certainly look out for more from the same author as she really is a compelling writer with a unique voice, but after a very promising first half, The Voices didn’t quite live up to my hopes/expectations. I certainly enjoyed the characters and the wonderful imagery; but in my humble opinion, this novel’s worthy aspirations got the better of it, slightly.

FOLLOWING ON:  The relationship between Billy’s parents, Crystal and Stan, was reminiscent of Snake by Kate Jennings.  Although an entirely different style, The Bone People by Keri Hulme explores the clash of aboriginal culture (in this case, Maori) with contemporary life, and has an equally unique, poetic style.

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