Review: 'That Deadman Dance'

Kim Scott's new novel That Deadman Dance explores the historic first meetings of the aboriginal peoples of Australia and European settlers in the early 19th century.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Our book reviewer, Alan Cheuse, has been visiting the early days of British settlements in Australia. His means of transport is an award-winning novel called "That Dead Man Dance." It's by Australian writer Kim Scott.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: Cygnet River, the coast of southwestern Australia, early in the 19th century, first contact between the aboriginal Noongar people and the crew of settlers from England led by a well-meaning medical man named Dr. Cross. The Noongars are represented by young Bobby Wabalanginy.

Bobby is a tribal storyteller, through whom all the words that describe this fascinating encounter between two worlds come forth - or most of them. He has a language for the real story inside him, we hear. But it's as if a strong wind whips those words away as soon as they leave his mouth. Bobby is not just a word twister but a shape shifter. Once he was a whale, the story goes on, and men from all points of the ocean horizon lured him close. When we meet Bobby in his human form, he's both young and old, proprietary of the ancient tribal ways and eager to adopt many of the European customs.

Scott's book works on us in similar fashion, giving us the story of first contact from the Noongar's and from the British point of view, employing the best of Bobby's storytelling techniques - a purity of expression, a fluid use of time and geography, and the Western perspective with calendar time trying to help us keep track of events

The two ways of seeing reality meld, really, in the unfolding of this novel. Is it magical realism or realistic magic? Most readers won't care about the technique. They'll just enjoy the flow of things in the surf, on the hills of an Australia inhabited for tens of thousands of years, and at the same time just discovered.

SIEGEL: The book is "That Dead Man Dance" by Kim Scott. It won the Commonwealth Writers Regional Award for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Our reviewer Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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