Fremantle Press (2011)
Reviewed by Jason Nahrung
If ever Western Australian actor and writer Peter Docker gets tired of the writing lark, he has a promising future ahead of him in basket weaving. In The Waterboys, his second novel, he draws on fantasy, magical realism, science fiction and alternative history to weave four core narrative threads into a vision of not only an alternative past, but an alternative present/future as well. The novel makes a fetching end product.
The most obvious thread is the one happening in the book’s now. It deals with an Australia in which the environmentally devastated eastern states, represented by the Water Board, have extended control over the country’s resources. This is a dystopian world, in which Western Australia has gone its own way; the ozone layer is depleted to the point of deadly exposure; the world at large feels sparse and depleted. The point of contention here is water: the people of WA feel it belongs to the land and they, as the land’s custodians, therefore have the right to access it freely. The Water Board enforces its claim with dams and guns.
This battle is exposed through the exploits of Conway, a white soldier in the resistance. Conway, a white man allied with the Countryman through his friendship with the cheeky and always dependable Mularabone, offers an outsider’s insight into the culture of Country and how the war for resources began as his role in the eventual resolution becomes more apparent.
Issues of family and belonging are further developed through the thread of Conway’s dreams of how he came to be in this situation, as well as his burgeoning spirituality and discovery of love. This further reveals Conway’s relationship with his brother, a redneck Water Board soldier; their personal conflict becomes a key element of the story as the two find themselves on opposite sides in the battle for not just the land but the spirit of the land.
In the third strand, Conway dreams himself into a re-imagined past. Captain Charles Fremantle, arriving to claim the country for Britain, does not enforce the rule of the Union Jack, but rather, strikes a spiritual and political accord with the indigenous population. He recognises their ownership of the land and working out a way in which Europeans and Aboriginal peoples can co-exist by sharing the best of what each society has to offer. Above all is a deep appreciation for Country. Fremantle upsets the colonial ambitions of Captain James Stirling and sets up a wonderful inversion of the White Australia Policy, implementing tests to weed out those who can not live under the strictures of his accord. Dissenters are allowed to continue on to Van Diemen’s Land; those of a more militant nature are dealt with in kind.
And in the fourth, and most enigmatic thread, Conway is hunted by the thuggish 44. This thread is the most dreamlike and surreal, seeming to stand outside the overlapping events of the narrative’s history to operate on a more symbolic level. I found fitting these incidents into the narrative to be the most challenging sections of the novel.
Docker uses magic realism in a way reminiscent of another great Western Australian writer, Mudrooroo. The ability to see spirits and totems, to travel in time, and the less esoteric ability to sense water, are simply accepted as part of everyday life. Spears and assault rifles, satellites and spirits all figure without question. Indeed, acceptance is a major theme of the story.
Docker’s take on Aboriginal spirituality has the scent of authenticity, mixed in there with the dust and diesel of the dry country. There’s minimal dialogue in Docker’s story, and he does a fine job of indicating the amount of information that can be relayed by body and sign language. The chapters, kept short and punchy, are headed to give an indication of which thread of the story they apply: the colonial arrival, Conway’s hyper-real waking dreams, clashes with 44 and the present day action. His prose is deft and restrained, yet evocative. His use of Conway as narrator, a man not exposed to the full mysteries of the Countrymen’s society, allows him to call equally on scientific – iron molecules in our blood, for instance – and more earthy metaphors such as drums banging in the back of trucks or the clacking of communal boomerangs.
Given the underlying issues of land rights, colonialism and the destructiveness of grog, Docker has done well to avoid overt proselytising, but delivers an appeal based on mutual dependence and shared reliance on the land. The Waterboys is a beautifully realised and written vision of how Australian society might have developed, as well as both a warning and suggestion for how things might yet be.