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Sunday, May 28, 2023

Book review: Alexis Wright’s Praiseworthy

Given Alexis Wright is the only author to have won both the Stella and Miles Franklin awards — for her books Carpentaria and Tracker — a new title from her was always going to be a literary event. Fitting, then, that the internationally acclaimed Waanyi writer has delivered, in her first work of fiction in a decade, an epic of vision, scope and ambition. It’s set in the north of Australia in the titular Aboriginal community of Praiseworthy, a “prize-winning tidy town” plagued by a years-long dust storm associated with the presence of “an atmospheric ancestor gone roguery”.

The nature of the failed attempts to address the issue suggest something of the wry tone and satirical sharpness that Wright offers up. Among them is an attempt to capitalise on the phenomenon as a “liquid gold tourist venture”; the construction of “a monstrous scarecrow” — a hologram modelled after “the biggest loudmouth in town”, its assimilationist mayor — “to frighten the haze away”; and the dispatch of “a common brown butterfly” as an emissary to Canberra (“The story went around that the government shot the butterfly with a blowtorch”).

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