“There’s a great deal in this book that readers will certainly find confronting. The long-term effects of everything from small injustices to deeply shocking incidents experienced by the Yuwaalaraay are spelled out skilfully and sensitively. I was by turns outraged, infuriated, and heartbroken at what they endured. So there’s darkness, despair and sorrow in the novel. It’s also a book of great beauty.”
Chapter 1 of Nardi Simpson’s debut novel Song of the Crocodile begins with a song. Not the song of the title, but a tune from Margaret Lightning, laundress at the hospital in the country town of Darnmoor (a fictional town set in real-life Yuwaalaraay country in north-western New South Wales) in the years following the end of World War II. As Margaret prepares for work, she hums, then sings and even walks in time with the melody she’s singing, ‘the tune skidding upon the great Mangamanga River, sending ripples and whirlpools along its spine’. In these first few pages, a palpable sense of landscape is conveyed and a strong musical motif is established. For the non-Indigenous people who have lived in Darnmoor since they claimed the land and settled there a century or so earlier, the pretty little town is ‘everything’, but even they need music – Darnmoor is a place where people go to churches of different denominations just so they can hear ‘a different vocal drone … more alluring than the doctrinal particulars’.
But to the local Indigenous people, the Yuwaalaraay, who have been removed from their traditional lands and now live outside the town at the Campgrounds, accessible only by a bush track, Darnmoor ‘itself is nothing’. The Indigenous people have been displaced, but culture, spirituality and connection to country has never died. The story concerns a number of generations of the same family, beginning with Margaret Lightning. We then follow the life of her daughter Celie, then Celie’s daughter Mili, then Mili’s oldest son Paddy. Each of the primary characters brings his or her own perspective to the story; and to the landscape, which is a source of continuity and comfort. There’s a remarkable stoicism in all the women who inhabit this landscape, whether it’s expressed in the straightforward bluntness and practicality of Celie’s sister Bess, or by the internalisation of individual traumas that women like Celie and Mili (and by extension countless other Indigenous women) have experienced first-hand.
Simpson immerses us in the everyday activities of washing, cooking, drinking tea, walking to work; we hear the conversations between the women, between mothers and daughters, sisters, husbands and wives, between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. We’re not only listening to the rhythms of people speaking, but also learning to listen to the land. Strong and loving family bonds help with the many tragedies in their lives, not least of which are the long-term generational – and still present – issues of racism, inequity, exploitation and violence perpetrated against the Aboriginal people on their own lands. Indeed that sense of generational trauma is subtly yet convincingly conveyed. And what permeates the book is the sense that no matter how much our nation has changed since white settlement began here more than 230 years ago, we all live on Aboriginal land. There’s a great deal in this book that readers will certainly find confronting. The long-term effects of everything from small injustices to deeply shocking incidents experienced by the Yuwaalaraay are spelled out skilfully and sensitively. I was by turns outraged, infuriated, and heartbroken at what they endured. So there’s darkness, despair and sorrow in the novel. It’s also a book of great beauty.
Song of the Crocodile is not a novel about music, but music – specifically song – is integral to the plot. In a recent edition of Loudmouth, I reviewed The ‘Imagined Sound’ of Australian Literature and Music by Joseph Cummins and since then have become more attuned to novelistic descriptions of sound, and how authors incorporate into their works elements intended to allow us to hear the sounds described. When authors are also musicians, an extra layer is added to the narrative. Nardi Simpson is a Yuwaalaraay musician, composer, educator and writer. Many may know her from the Indigenous vocal duo the Stiff Gins; she’s composed for Ensemble Offspring; works with student ensembles; directs choirs; and is also in the midst of doing her PhD in Music. Her musical background coupled with her gift for lyricism and ability to convey through words, the very essence of sounds, has made Song of the Crocodile a rather special book.
I was struck by some of the evocative writing to which she brings a musician’s sensitivity. Not only do the birds have their songs – the cockatoos for instance ‘flew overhead crying their lilting cawing song’ – there is constant music throughout the book. The description of the sound of rain on the roof: ‘The flat tin roof played a soft symphony of pings and clicks’. A song being ‘dragged across’ a baby’s skin. The rhythms of lamentation. When Margaret sings her grandmother’s song to her daughter and granddaughter in a gesture to help heal Celie’s red raw hands, savaged by years of doing the town’s laundry, the notes resonate with the surrounding bush and the song ‘soaks’ into Celie’s skin. There’s even music in the way Aunty Joyce marks the clean laundry packs with signs that define country: ‘every image carried a story as old as the soil itself’. This way the boys delivering the laundry to the whites are learning the land and how to read it. Simpson’s descriptions of the river’s physical and spiritual power put me in mind of the river in Tony Birch’s 2015 novel Ghost River. Simpson and Birch have different approaches and different stories, but they share a visceral connection to the cadences of rivers and ancestral country. The river in this story has its own eloquent song. Songs provide continuity. For instance, Margaret’s grandmother’s song will go on, as will the music of country.
The people whose stories are being told are exquisitely drawn, Simpson describing their emotions with clarity and resonance. There’s an almost poetic description of the stormy night that Mili is born – the very night her father dies. Right before her birth her deep brown eyes, so very like her father’s, are transformed to ‘a greening sky blue’, a kindness sent by her ancestors ‘saving them the distress of reminding those closest to her of what they had lost and could never again regain’. Celie’s grief for her husband is ‘carried above the crowd, seeping into the darkness of gungala’. Yet although Tom has died, his spirit remains. He’s part of the stars now, and the stars watch over the land.
In fact, the sense of continuity and of spiritual connection to country is reinforced by the spirits of the ancestors, as well as the more recently deceased, who watch over the living and try to help them. The ancestral spirits come into the story with Jakybird, the ‘songman’ who is destined to sing ‘the most powerful song in this country’ – the Song of the Crocodile. As people die and are reunited with those who went before, they’re told they’re needed ‘for the song’. Jakybird’s amassed choir plays a critical part in the story’s explosive denouement, which revolves around Paddy, the confused, often angry young man, who is the mandii: the vessel through which the Crocodile acts.
‘The Yuwaalaraay language is included right through Song of the Crocodile. It’s not translated, but the meanings soon become evident to the attuned reader. It’s also clear that no matter how much suffering is inflicted upon them, language, song, and country are part of the very soul of Indigenous Australians. Nardi Simpson’s sad and beautiful novel will help white Australians come to some appreciation and understanding of the eternal resilience of Indigenous culture.