The Oldest Song in the World

THE OLDEST SONG IN THE WORLD
Sue Woolfe
HarperCollins, $29.99

There are times when the setting of a novel outshines the story. When the plot doesn't stand up to the place, or do it justice. This was my experience with The Oldest Song in the World. In Sue Woolfe's latest novel, Kate, a white woman in her 30s, is working in a suburban library shelving books. She reads them surreptitiously, when her boss isn't watching, but is caught out reading a book about linguistics in remote Aboriginal communities by an older woman who - it turns out - is the author of the book and a professor of linguistics at the local university.

The woman convinces Kate to enrol - somehow the thirtysomething, intellectually curious Kate has floated through life without even considering university - and she finds herself attending lectures. However, she is unable to shake the apathy that has been with her since childhood. Woolfe's characters in previous novels have been strong women who, for some reason, haven't achieved their potential, but Kate combines inertia with a desire to please others, particularly men. "I was always appeasing," Kate tells us on the first page of this novel. "Though one day, very soon, I promised myself, I'd find a way to change."

Despite only attending the occasional lecture and reading one or two books in her course, Kate is chosen by the professor to travel to a remote Aboriginal community and record an old woman singing what might be the oldest song in the world. Kate's not interested in the project until she sees the signature of the man who has written the letter requesting an academic. He is, she suspects, the boy who she loved as a young girl and who disappeared the morning of a tragic boating accident.

So Kate finds herself, completely naive, an outsider in an outback Aboriginal community with her only connection a hostile, arrogant man, Adrian, who might or might not be this connection from her past. Now we come to the convincing part of this novel: Woolfe writes beautifully and unsentimentally of that cultural gulf between Anglo and Aboriginal worlds. We experience Kate's embarrassment and social gaffes, but we also see how the other whites around her deal with being the minorities. Everyone is convinced that they have things figured out - they know the right way to interact - but as one of the more perceptive outsiders puts it: "We make the mob in our own image."

When it comes time for Kate to record the ancient song, she must question for whose sake she is recording it: what the community could gain or lose from it. Woolfe has a gentle way of describing the immense challenges facing remote Aboriginal settlements, as much from the opinionated outsiders as from within.

Yet, despite the novel being in first person, it is hard to feel an affinity with Kate. Even towards the end of the book, her character is vague and difficult to pin down. The mysteries from her childhood, when they are eventually clarified, seem so implausible in a place with a real and ever-present history. It doesn't help that these mysteries - drownings, her childhood relationship with Adrian - are only dealt with briefly and so seem of little import.

I finished The Oldest Song in the World with a sense of the place but no involvement with the characters who were at its centre. I was happy to leave them behind, but I understood what drew them to the desert. A remote Aboriginal community is a controversial place to write about, even from the perspective of an outsider, but Woolfe approaches it with sensitivity and skill.

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