The Fringe Dwellers

PDF-file by Nene Gare

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I was in outback Western Australia recently, interviewing someone about the lifestyle in their small mining township. After talking a little about the independence necessary in a place where your nearest supermarket involves a 450-mile round trip, he went on to praise the low crime rate and sense of community. ‘Despite the fact that we have quite a big Aboriginal community,’ he said, ‘we don't have much of a problem with petty crime.’

Interesting way to phrase it, I said….

It's the sort of casual remark you hear a lot. And I'm always surprised by how silent most Australian literature is on the subject – Aborigines are almost completely absent from works from The Thorn Birds to Cloudstreet, The Harp In The South to Oscar and Lucinda, A Town Like Alice to The Slap.

This book is an interesting case. The author was white, but the book is an intimate portrait of an Aboriginal family living on the edge of a small town in Western Australia in the 1950s. It's the sort of act of ventriloquism that we've learnt to be suspicious of nowadays, and perhaps there are some readers who would find it faintly patronising. But it must have been revelatory when it was first published in 1961, and I still thought it was brilliantly and sensitively done. Nene Gare lived among Aborigines for many years, counting many as close friends at a time when this was rare (it's still not especially common for a lot of white Australians); her husband was later appointed Commissioner for Native Welfare, and one of the relative few that did not make the position look like a travesty.

The novel centres on the Comeaway family, who begin the story living in a humpy outside town, later move into council housing, and end up on a specially-built enclosure. This book lives or dies on the strength of its characters; luckily, they are brilliantly, complicatedly alive and they stop The Fringe Dwellers from being a grim, worthy kind of book and turn it into a much more interesting study which, apart from the social-historical interest, has all kinds of things to say about families and relationships and growing up.

The hero is the teenage Trilby Comeaway – awesome name – who rails desperately against a system that is horribly weighted against her. Unlike her parents, who battle on with amiable weariness, or her sister Noonah, who keeps her head down and tries to fit in, Trilby is filled with fury at the whole of society and everyone in it.

‘Some [whites] let you get closer than others, that's all. They still keep a line between us and them. And when you look at the way we live,’ her eyes swept over the room scornfully, like grey lightning, ‘you can't blame them, can you? Pigs live better than we do. I tell you I hate white people because they lump us all together and never give one of us a chance to leave all this behind. And I hate coloured people more, because most of them don't want a chance. They like living like pigs, damn them.’

Trilby's self-destruction is hard to watch and Gare takes things to a pretty dark place before the end. Still, this is that rare thing, a novel written to make a social point that never feels remotely preachy, full of anger but also full of warmth, and amusement, and love.

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