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An epic tale of the top end of Australia

Capricornia - Xavier Herbert

Capricornia is the lengthy, epic tale spanning over generations in what we call 'the top end' (the Northern Territory) of Australia. I'm not even sure where to start. So many characters, so many intertwining storylines but all flowed well and made sense. It is the story of the trials and tribulations people who lived there, the white Australians, the Aboriginals, the half caste, the Chinese and all the rest. It is a very real look at the history of Australia, and how the North was very different to the South.

If you don't know Australia, I can try to sum up the differences for you. The climate and landscape are very different in the North compared to the South - instead of four seasons there are two, Wet and Dry. Both are extreme. The North is mainly desert, hardly habitable for cattle. And yet there are many who live there and try to 'make a go of it'. It's not an easy life.

The story begins when two of the Shillingsworth brothers move up North and join the Capricornian Government Service. Oscar becomes a gentleman but Mark is restless in his new role. He wants to be fixing engines, not observing them. It's not long before he takes up with Ned Krater, a trepang fisherman, who introduces him to all the temptations of Capricornia. Mark soon bears a son to an Aboriginal woman, a 'lubra' and it is this son, Norman, who struggles to find his place in Capricornia. Raised by his Uncle Oscar back down South as a white man, but regarded as a black once home in Capricornia Norman does not know where he fits in.

As well as Norman, we meet the O'Cannons, a white man with an Aboriginal wife and a tribe of kids, the Differs, a white man raising a half caste daughter, the McLashs, the mother who runs the local store and the son who drives the locomotive, and a colourful cast of other characters. And there is the underlying mystery - where is Mark Shillingsworth?

I thought Capricornia was a fantastic novel and felt a little shocked by the end (in hindsight I think I should have seen it coming!). It is an important piece of Australian history that we should remember, although I have to agree with the following line from the novel : How could anyone understand the ways of Capricornia unless he lived there? which is exactly how I felt when trying to explain this novel to my friends.