Review: The Crying Place – Lia Hills

Uluru, Northern Territory

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There is an element of risk in being a white, New Zealand-born woman, writing about men’s experience of grief in remote Australian Aboriginal communities, but that is exactly what Lia Hills has done in her novel, The Crying Place (Allen & Unwin). When Saul (a self-described ‘whitefella’) hears about his friend, Jed’s, death by suicide, he leaves his apartment in Sydney and heads into the desert heartland of the country, in search of answers. Saul knows only that, in the months prior to his death, Jed had been living in a remote Pitjantjatjara community out beyond Uluru, and that he had fallen in love with a local girl, Nara, while he was there. What Saul finds, as he traces Jed’s last months, is not just a new connection to his old friend, but also to something much greater than himself.

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Incorporating historical accounts of gypsum mourning caps, and descriptions of sorry time in Ininyingi, the fictional Aboriginal community in which the latter half of the novel is set, Saul (and, by association, the reader) learns about grief and healing through observation, rather than by inserting himself into the community’s process and appropriating it for his own needs. There are times where he appears intensely uncomfortable with his position on the margins of society, including feeling affronted at having to gain a permit to access what he sees as his own country, and his actions are not always considered or sensitive; however, it is by remaining in this position of discomfort that the voices of the Pitjantjatjara people are amplified enough to be heard and Saul is able to gain some insight into his own grief.

The decision to privilege Aboriginal stories and values throughout this text was an intentional one, with a focus on listening over talking, and observation over explanation. From the sounds of country, picked up by transcription software during an initial three-week road trip into the desert and maintained through the final text, to the use of Pitjantjatjara language and stories, the book is careful to honour traditional knowledge without twisting it to meet its own ends. In her author notes, Hills discusses the extensive consultation process she undertook to ensure that her story was sensitive and appropriate to culture, and this respect has paid off.

 

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Long-listed for the 2018 Miles Franklin award, The Crying Place has been recognised as an important piece of Australia’s literary landscape, but, perhaps more importantly, feedback from indigenous communities and readers has also been positive. In a country that continues to struggle to address historical, and ongoing, trauma perpetrated against its native peoples, the novel opens the door for a different kind of dialogue, where Traditional Owners have true agency and their knowledge and experience is heard and valued. This is a book that should be compulsory reading for everyone coming to, or living in, Australia. It engages with issues that are often left unspoken or dismissed as too difficult, and to fully appreciate it, the reader should be willing to do the same.

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