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Aussie Book Review: Coal Creek by Alex Miller

My Rating:              5 / 5
Format:                   ARC courtesy of The Reading Room
Publication Date:    October 2013
Category:               Literary Fiction
ISBN:                      9781743316986
Publisher:               Allen & Unwin
RRP:                      AU$29.99

From the Cover

“The new novel from Australia’s highly acclaimed literary treasure is an extraordinarily powerful exploration of tragedy, betrayal, the true nature of friendship and the beauty of lasting love.

‘Me and Ben had been mates since we was boys and if it come to it I knew I would have to be on his side.’

Bobby Blue is caught between loyalty to his only friend, Ben Tobin, and his boss, Daniel Collins, the new constable at Mount Hay. ‘Ben was not a big man but he was strong and quick as a snake. He had his own breed of pony that was just like him, stocky and reliable on their feet.’ Bobby understands the people and the ways of Mount Hay; Collins studies the country as an archaeologist might, bringing his coastal values to the hinterland. Bobby says, ‘I do not think Daniel would have understood Ben in a million years.’ Increasingly bewildered and goaded to action by his wife, Constable Collins takes up his shotgun and his Webley pistol to deal with Ben. Bobby’s love for Collins’ wilful young daughter Irie is exposed, leading to tragic consequences for them all.

Miller’s exquisite depictions of the country of the Queensland highlands form the background of this simply told but deeply significant novel of friendship, love, loyalty and the tragic consequences of misunderstanding and mistrust. Coal Creek is a wonderfully satisfying novel with a gratifying resolution. It carries all the wisdom and emotional depth we have come to expect from Miller’s richly evocative novels.”

Summary and Thoughts

They say “a picture paints a thousand words” but in the case of Alex Miller, his words paint a thousand pictures!  His evocative descriptions of the Queensland landscape bring it into such keen perspective that it almost becomes a character in the story with Bobby Blue, his main character, an uneducated man, telling us the story in the only way he knows how – in simple language that resonates with deep insight into the events leading up to that fateful day.
Our narrator, Bobby Blewitt, or as his mother called him, Bobby Blue, son of a stockman, is twenty years old.  He’s always lived in Mount Hay – in fact Mount Hay, mustering and being in the bush are the things he knows best.  With his father having recently passed on though, Bobby has been placed in a position where he needs to secure himself work so that he can survive.

“…the old days was over for us and I needed to look around and find a new way for myself to make a living.  The stations would have been happy to put me on and I might have stuck with the cattle work but the job with the new constable come up just then and I thought I would give it a go just for a short time.  I did not expect things to work out the way they did.”

Daniel Collins is the new local constable.  A man who fought in Papua New Guinea and originally from the coast, he relocates to Mount Hay with his wife and two daughters, taking up residence as the local policeman.
When Bobby takes up employment with Daniel, some of the perks include him moving into a room at the watch house where he finds himself with a roof over his head and food in his belly.  Daniel’s oldest daughter, Irie, teaches him to read and write, but she also awakens something deeper within him.  Uneducated or not, he is well aware that her age, as well as love between him and a girl of her social standing, would be forbidden!
Ben Tobin has been Bobby’s mate since they were youngsters, more like a brother to him than his own, but when an incident occurs in which the two young Collins’ girls disappear and it is believed that Ben has kidnapped them, Bobby finds himself torn between loyalty to his long-time friend, a sense of duty to his new boss and love like no other as he is placed in the midst of a sequence of tragic events triggered by a well-meaning man born and bred on the coast but unschooled in the ways of the bush. 
Coal Creek is the first Alex Miller book I have read and it drew me in from the first page.  Miller’s rich detailing of the landscape and the 1950’s life in general brings the wild nature of outback Queensland to life but it is Bobby Blue’s distinct voice that carries this novel.  Striking in its simplicity and with the slow, easy cadence of those who have grown up in the outback, the prose is enhanced by the lack of quoted language, with this semi-literate cattleman jumping in to the telling of all the events which have brought him to this place and time.
Drawing deeply on his own experiences working in the outback, Miller has created a memorable character in Bobby Blue as he takes us to the heart of the stone country, giving us a novel overflowing with the love of family and the memories we carry with us, the limits to which friendship, honour and loyalty can be tested and last but not least, the beauty of love in all its forms.

Coal Creek is a powerful novel with great depth – one which should be savoured – and I wish to thank The Reading Room for providing me with a hard copy for review.

*Allen & Unwin are delighted to report that Coal Creek (along with two of their other titles) has been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2014.  These Awards were inaugurated by The Hon. John Cain, Premier of Victoria in 1985, to mark the centenary of the births of Vance and Nettie Palmer and to honour and reward literary achievement by Australian writers.  Winners will be announced on the 28th January 2014, but in the meantime, you may go along and cast your vote in the People’s Choice Award here.
A Little About the Author

Alex Miller is twice winner of Australia’s premier literary prize, The Miles Franklin Literary Award, first in 1993 for The Ancestor Game and again in 2003 for Journey to the Stone Country. He is also an overall winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, in 1993 for The Ancestor Game.
His fifth novel, Conditions of Faith, won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the 2001 New South Wales Premier’s Awards. In 2011 he won this award a second time with his novel Lovesong.  Lovesong also won the People’s Choice Award in the NSW Premier’s Awards, the Age Book of the Year Award and the Age Fiction Prize for 2011.
In 2007 Landscape of Farewell was published to wide critical acclaim and in 2008 won the Chinese Annual Foreign Novels 21st Century Award for Best Novel and the Manning Clark Medal for an outstanding contribution to Australian cultural life. It was also shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, the ALS Gold Medal and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.
Alex is published internationally and widely in translation and is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

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