LIA HILLS The Crying Place. Reviewed by Michelle McLaren
The Crying Place is a big novel that juggles even bigger ideas.
For the first time in his life, Saul, a drifter, has remained in the same place for nearly a year. He has a steady job, and he’s renting a tiny Sydney apartment, its door marked with scratches left behind by ‘a dog once forced to live where it didn’t belong’.
When his phone rings one evening with the news that his oldest friend, Jed, has killed himself, Saul is blindsided. Before he has time to think, he’s on the move again – his dinner abandoned, his car keys jingling in his hand and his job forgotten.
After an overnight drive to Melbourne, he visits the grim sharehouse where Jed spent his final weeks living with strangers. Jed had just returned from working in a remote Aboriginal community, and the last time they’d talked, he’d told Saul that he’d met someone there. A serious relationship. But something had happened, and Jed returned to Melbourne alone.
Saul finds a picture of her, Nara, a Pitjantjatjara woman, among Jed’s things:
The picture was dominated by a woman’s face, the background a uniform ochre, as if she was standing in front of a painted wall or a dune. She was almost smiling, though something was holding her back, her eyes focused intently on the photographer. Dark hair hung to her shoulders; hair only a little darker than her skin.
Saul is back in the drivers’ seat, this time driving towards the centre of Australia – towards Nara and, with luck, some answers. As the immense, unforgiving desert begins to open up around him, Saul’s grief begins to take hold.
The Crying Place is Lia Hills’s second novel, and it moves at an unhurried yet insistent pace, like looking into the distance from the window of a fast-moving car.
In her notes at the end of the book, Hills reveals that the first draft of The Crying Place was completed in three weeks, dictated as she drove through the desert – which might explain why the novel is at its best when its main character is in motion. Just over half the story is dedicated to Saul’s road trip from Sydney, to Melbourne, to Coober Pedy, Uluru, Alice Springs and, eventually, Ininyingi, the fictitious community where Nara lives. The way Hills writes about the immensity of the Australian desert, the sheer, dangerous scale of it, is simply captivating.
The long drive is punctuated with frequent flashbacks, showing us Saul and Jed’s friendship and their travels together. While this helps us gain a better understanding of their bond, some of these scenes have little to add to the narrative.
While we learn a lot about Jed, we never really get to know Saul. Though the novel is narrated from his first-person perspective, and despite all the flashbacks and references to ‘that time’ at Loch Ness or Ko Tao or the Sahara, Saul remains inscrutable, as if he has just materialised in his apartment on the first page of the novel. An ex-girlfriend is mentioned briefly, a brother, his parents, but somehow, nothing about Saul seems to stick. We know where he’s been – Hills all but shows us Saul’s passport – but this isn’t a substitute for actual character building. Saul is a blank space, a narrative blind spot.
It’s possible, of course, that Hills is vague about Saul’s identity on purpose. As he drives towards Ininyingi, he listens to a CD he found in Jed’s room. He meets a woman he’s attracted to, then realises that her facial features remind him of Jed. The scene in which Saul puts on his friend’s T-shirt is particularly chilling – it feels as if a boundary has been crossed. Slowly and carefully, Hills builds up tension around Saul’s identity as he becomes more and more like Jed. There are even moments when it seems that Saul may eventually share Jed’s fate – however, the novel begins with a scene set in the future narrated by Saul, so this tension leads nowhere.
The novel’s pace shifts gear when Saul reaches Ininyingi, where he hopes to meet Nara. Saul’s travelled the world, but he’s never really known an Aboriginal person. He and Jed grew up in Tasmania – Saul remembers studying Truganini in high school, but he also remembers the racist comments they’d made about her picture in their textbook. When Saul finally meets Nara, he has only the vaguest idea how to relate to her. He naively hopes that she will let him share in her grieving process, but she shuts him out, leaving him to deal with Jed’s loss by himself.
From the moment Saul arrives in Ininyingi, Hills takes his cultural awkwardness and makes it literal. He bumps into doorframes, trips up steps, falls over his own feet. It seems that Hills is wary of making missteps too. In her author’s note at the end of the novel, she details the pains she took to learn the Pitjantjatjara language, which she weaves throughout The Crying Place. She also writes about the elders and academics she spoke with for permission to use certain phrases and stories.
The Crying Place is a big novel that juggles even bigger ideas. It’s about how we come to terms with things – with grief, with the past, and with finding out who we are and where we belong. They’re themes that Hills explores at a level that’s both personal and national at the same time.
It’s not an easy thing, writing about a culture that’s not your own. But The Crying Place doesn’t attempt to take an Indigenous story and appropriate it. Saul tells us in the novel’s introduction that ‘this is the story of a whitefella’.
Approaching this novel, I wondered if it’s better for white writers to simply avoid writing about Indigenous characters and places. However, ignoring Indigenous Australia, dismissing it as ‘too difficult’, feels like part of the problem rather than the solution. In The Crying Place, Lia Hills offers a way forward.
Lia Hills The Crying Place Allen & Unwin 2017 PB 480pp $29.99
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