Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Anyone reading and thinking about the image of Darwin presented through the characters in Matt Nable’s book is sure to claim that the author has exaggerated. Here we read of a town awash in drink, where men soak up alcohol as rapidly as they can because the hot sun is guaranteed to warm their beer and make it undrinkable. Darwin is a town where men do not reason, they brawl. Serious crime is hidden by every source possible. Crimes against persons or property are planned and implemented by the self-appointed leaders of the town – Mayor Landry, Senior Sergeant Riley and various men who control others of no official status. When the head is rotten, what hope for the remaining organs?
Is this a realistic view of 1963 Darwin? I can’t answer that but I can draw a parallel with a small town in the Gulf country of Queensland in 1963 which, with the exception of murder, was guilty of miserable conduct as described in the book.
This does not mean blind acceptance of Nable’s book as a successful enterprise. I had difficulty reading the book with the bland name, Still. It failed to capture, or maintain my interest. I was left, completely at a loss, as to the reason for the title Still. It has no referent within the story. Further, while attempts were made to individualize the characters, in the final analysis, both men and women had a faded sameness. On the rear cover appears a long quotation (‘Charlotte Clark drove…before a hand was around her mouth’). The implication readers will draw from this quote is that Charlotte Clark is in dire trouble. The story reveals that this may not be the case. Misleading? I think so. Unfair? Maybe so.
Many of the major characters are bad, really bad. No provision exists for ‘sometimes-bad’ people. Even Potter, the policeman-hero, is often out of his mind with booze, and well aware of his weakness, and its potential negative effect on his body (not to say his career), yet he makes no attempt to fight it. He succumbs to the feeling of relaxation that alcohol is said to bring. This same Senior Constable Ned Potter aids in the unlawful destruction of a killer, an unforgivable sin, a trashing of the law. What does this reveal about the man? Where does he stand in terms of the law?
The heat and the humidity of Northern Australia are revealed in a display of authorial knowledge. Nable does know this place, it has been a home for him. He knows the habits of the animals, where to look for crocodile tracks, the structure of a typical aboriginal community and so on. He has observed the denizens whose real home is the pub and sympathizes with their women folk.
Ned Potter, his investigation thwarted at every turn, finds a place in his make-up for optimism. He drives to the spot where he had discovered the bodies of murdered men and takes a shovel to examine where dirt lies disturbed. Of course, the land area in this part of the Australian bush is so vast that the exercise was expectedly futile. His confrontation with a wild pig has led him once to an unexpected find. A second piece of ‘luck’ with a shovel would have made a mockery of coincidence.
The villains and the hero live in a hot part of the country and have accommodated in their own way to their environment. The natural setting has not been ignored but the major focus is directed to the interactions of people in a small town and, in a specific unit, the pub.
People’s views will differ, some radically.
by Matt Nable
$32.99; 384 pp