I bought Alan Garner's Strandloper after finding it on the shelf at Brown & Bunting, my favourite secondhand book shop (they had two copies, so if you're interested, and you live near Northcote, you could pick one up yourself...) It is an adult novel, so don't look for it in the Children's/YA section.

Strandloper traces, in sparse, elliptical fashion, one version of the true story of William Buckley, a convict from Cheshire (Garner's own country), who was transported to Australia at the turn of the eighteenth century, escaped from the colony, and lived among the Aborigines of Port Phillip Bay for thirty years before reuniting with the white settlers. In Garner's novel, Buckley then returns to Cheshire, bringing his life full circle, and uniting Aboriginal and ancient Cheshire spirituality in his own person.

I have complicated feelings about this book. On one hand, it was a thrilling read, though it requires alert attention -- like Red Shift, the style is oblique and centred on dialogue. The period and local dialect is not translated for us and we must navigate by context and ear. Garner has taken liberties with Buckley's story - he remained illiterate until the end of his life, and he never returned to England after he was re-captured, spending his last years in Hobart; but the 'pattern' of Buckley's life as told here, from ancient fertility rites enacted in rural England, to the rich spiritual belief and practice of traditional Aborigines, and the final understanding that the patterns of ancient wisdom can overlap and speak to one another, is deeply satisfying and moving.

To me, the sections of the book dealing with the long period that Buckley (or Murrangurk, as he becomes) lives with the people of Port Phillip seem authentic and plausible. But what would I know? Murrangurk's tribe is designated the Beingalite, which seems to be a made-up name, which is problematic in itself, but as an account of lived, traditional tribal life, it feels as real and genuine as the sections dealing with Buckley's life before transportation. But again, how would I know? One reviewer accused Garner of resorting to faux-Biblical language to give these parts of the story a false weight -- I disagree with this judgement completely.

According to The Voice That Thunders, Garner consulted closely with an indigenous anthropologist while writing the book (annoyingly, he doesn't name her), and to me, he seems to have done an outstanding job of capturing the texture and flavour of Aboriginal life and belief. BUT at the end of the day, he is a whitefella from the other side of the world. When he describes sacred ceremony, sacred objects, sacred experience, is he speaking the truth, and if he is, should he be? Or is it an approximation of imagined, reconstructed belief? Or is he just imagining how things might have felt to Buckley, stitched together from William's own past (the Shick-Shack rite) and filtered through his own understanding, which is basically what Garner himself is doing in telling Buckley's story, and what we as readers of Strandloper are doing, too?

I guess I don't know what to make of the whole project, really. I love the idea that these ancient wisdoms are all related, and I love the idea of using William Buckley's story as a portal to explore that possibility, and the writing is (of course) superb. I didn't actually find this a difficult book, not as hard as Red Shift -- maybe having a little bit of background helped me, because there were certainly some bewildered readers and reviewers out there. But should Garner have even attempted to recreate traditional Aboriginal experience in the first place? Does he have the right to try? It took him twelve years to write this book. I'm in awe of the attempt and I'm very glad to have read it. I think it is extraordinary.

If anyone else out there has read Strandloper, I'd love to know what you think.

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