Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Voices

by Susan Elderkin

“A reader can feel [Elderkin’s] human characters being ripped from the earth, a reader can feel the children being ripped form their parent, and a reader with a good ear can hear the screams of spirits as they are taken from all living things and banished into the dusty future.” –Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 336
  • Publication Date October 15, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4170-5
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $13.00

About The Book

A novel of seductive beauty set in the Australian bush, by a writer Granta recently selected as one of the “Best Young Writers Under 40”

A story of incantatory beauty set in the wilds of Australia, Time Out New York called The Voices “vividly imagined,” The Independent (UK) hailed it as “a tour de force,” and Susan Elderkin’s second novel has earned her the distinction from Granta as one of the “Best Young British Writers Under 40.”

In the remote, bloodred dust of the Australian bush, thirteen-year-old Billy Saint turns to the stark landscape and mesmerizing spirits of the native Aborigines for the companionship he lacks at home. He hears the Voices of the country itself, and is befriended by an enigmatic Aboriginal girl, Maisie, who has ‘sung him up”. As Maisie leads him farther into the untamed land and a culture that is not rightfully his, Billy realizes he is meddling with something deeply terrifying, and powerful beyond his control.

Ten years later Billy lies in a hospital bed, recovering from gruesome wounds of mysterious origin. In Cecily, an Aboriginal nurse, Billy discovers an unlikely ally as he struggles to piece himself back together. Shifting between his hospital stay and the childhood that led him there, The Voices unfolds into a mesmerizing exploration of the relationship between a white man, the land he loves, and the native spirits of the country, struggling to be heard before they are lost forever.

Tags Literary

Praise

“A reader can feel [Elderkin’s] human characters being ripped from the earth, a reader can feel the children being ripped form their parent, and a reader with a good ear can hear the screams of spirits as they are taken from all living things and banished into the dusty future.” –Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

“Vividly imagined. . . . Much of [The Voices] is narrated by the voices, who speak in a royal we. . . . It’s a daring move, but it works entirely.” –Joanna Smith Rakoff, Time Out New York

“Elderkin enjoys pairing unlikely characters for unexpected, life-changing relationships. . . . It’s the perfect setup to explore the themes of native culture versus colonization, pure land versus urbanization, spirituality versus alienation. But Elderkin spares us the lecture and allows the “voices,” a Greek chorus of animal spirits, to chime in between chapters and show us, rather humorously, what came before the white man smothered everything in concrete.” –Elisa Ludwig, The Philadelphia City Paper

“The descriptive language of the novel has a “you are there” quality

. The writing might be compared with Leslie Marmon Silko or Louise Erdich.” –Penelope Power, KLIATT

“[Elderkin] create[s] lush exotic worlds.” –Kirkus Reviews

“A complex and mysterious tale. . . . This is the story of one young man who knows too well the landscape’s strange and painful poetry. . . . Elderkin’s dialog effortlessly conjures intricate characters and settings, highlighting the dangerous confrontations between cultures in the outback.” –Purdence Peiffer, Library Journal

“Certainly brilliant. . . . Beautifully written, melancholy, fey, angry and utterly absorbing. . . . Part fable, part coming-of-age story, [The Voices] attempts to describe the demise of an entire culture through only a handful of lives.” –Cressida Connolly, The Daily Telegraph (UK)

“Ambitious. . . . As a writer she is the real thing, and the novel, tender, sensual and genuinely original. . . . Elderkin is often understatedly funny. . . . [The Voices] is evidence of great talent.” –Maggie Gee, The London Times (UK)

“A page turner. . . . A compelling sense of earth’s mystery and the terror of its secrets is evoked by the novel’s power to spellbind (or bamboozle) the reader, in this heart-rending and funny dance of death–and new life. . . . Susan Elderkin’s characteristically dazzling techniques are on display in all their virtuosity and freakish inventiveness. . . . For sheer narrative invention and wanton brio, she is without equal.” –The Independent (UK)

“Hugely enjoyable. . . . [Elderkin] impeccably captures the texture of self-delusion and wasted time. . . . [The Voices is] laced with proof of talent in abundance.” –Tom Adair, The Scotsman (UK)

“Admirable. . . . Elderkin takes giant risks. . . . The truth is that it works brilliantly well.” –Miranda France, The Spectator (UK)

“A lament for a disappearing Australia which doesn’t disappoint.” –Time Out London (Critics’ Choice) (UK)

“[The Voices] contains that gnarled and deeply strange elemental force that demands respect. . . . What is remarkable is Elderkin’s ability to conjure up the Australian outback with such confidence. . . . She has taken on large themes–the demise of a culture; the neglected presences, desperate to be heard, that can twist human destiny–and absorbed a blasted erotic land to the bone. . . . A book to be admired.” –Joanna Briscoe, Guardian (UK)

“The Voices is a fascinating and complex novel set in the desolate beauty of northwest Australia, but the story, which centers around a 13-year-old boy who begins to hear the voices of the ageless Aboriginal spirits, reveals themes that resonate far beyond its specific setting.” –Curt Witteveen, Annie Bloom’s Books, Portland, OR, Book Sense quote

‘delicate, powerful and strange.” –Eve (UK)

“The writing is often shockingly well observed. . . . Her ‘real people” are beautifully real.” –Helen Rumbelow, Play (UK)

“[The Voices is] a novel of great strengths, a work that is vivid and ambitious in its scope.” –Margaret Stead, London Times Literary Supplement (UK)

“Elderkin is a remarkable writer–this is an original and captivating work that transports while being read and haunts for long after. The Voices is an absolute pleasure.” –Ginette Carpenter, Big Issue in the North (UK)

Praise for Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains:

‘startlingly observant . . . It’s like Muriel Spark rewritten by G”nter Grass.” –Paul West, Bookforum

“Rich, strange, unclassifiable . . . Watch Elderkin. If there is any justice she will make her literary reputation and win the Booker in a few years’ time.” –The Times (London)

“Richly imaginative, strange and compelling, this novel contains as many stinging surprises as the desert in which it is set.” –The Guardian (London)

Awards

A Book Sense 76 Selection
Shortlisted for this year’s Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize

Excerpt

prologue

it comes from the inland desert

A warm wind is blowing tonight.

It comes from the inland desert and it’s heavy with red dust, handfuls scooped up and cradled tight against its chest. So far the plain has been as seemingly endless and without modulation as an ocean at sleep: crowns of spinifex hug the flat; the occasional sun-bitten gum tree, stripped of its leaves, reaches out of the earth like a claw. But now a sandstone escarpment rises from nowhere like a submarine emerging from the deep, and the wind pulls up short, whirls around in an eddy of indecision, sprinkling a little of its precious cargo on the land. Which way will it go? First it gusts to the right, then to the left, and here, sheltering within a patch of grey box and scraggy cabbage gums it finds a crooked tin roof rusted to a pink and orange patchwork. It circles the house in a double lasso, finds an open window at the back, plays at bellying the curtain in and out. Then slips inside.

It’s a small, square room.

Rectangles of white-bordered posters glimmer through the mealy grey air. Their edges snake where they haven’t been fully stuck down. Along a shelf is a row of stones, small enough to fit in the palm of a child’s hand. Near the far wall a spray of blond hair crouches on a pillow like a spider. There’s the sound of shallow, fretful breath.

Suddenly the hair flies into the air, hangs suspended for a moment like a ball at the top of its toss, then drops back down again – a fresh corner of pillow this time, a little cooler than before. Maybe now he’ll be able to get to sleep. But no: a second later the hair flies up again, an elbow jabbing angrily at the sheet.

This is Billy, we say.

Ah, says the wind, so this is him. What’s all the tossing and turning about? Is it the heat?

No, no, he’s used to that.

Was I making too much noise in the cabbage gums?

No more than usual. Look, just there, on the bridge of his nose. See that dent?

Like a drawstring tugged tight?

Yes.

A gathering up of his confusion?

That’s right. All the unanswered questions.

I see, says the wind. No wonder he can’t sleep.

Quite.

Still don’t know what you lot are bothering with him for.

Though curious enough at first, the wind doesn’t really care about this boy – and why should it? It has no need of people; it doesn’t depend on them like we do. Instead it curls around the room looking for something to disturb, a loose sheet of paper to flutter to the floor, a pencil to roll off a chair. But the contents of this room are disappointingly static. On the floor by the bed is a thin, hardback book called The Universe, face down, its pages buckled and trapped beneath it. On its cover is a picture of the planet: swirls of white and blue and green like blobs of ink twirled round with a nib, and all around it is the perfect blackness that sets the scenes for this boy’s nightmares – more like sensations than nightmares, when gravity has lost its hold and he’s falling through space, arms lashing out for something to hold onto, all the time falling faster and faster and still the blackness goes on, plenty more where that came from – ah yes, an infinite supply. Will it ever come to an end?

We’ve all had dreams like that, sneers the wind. They aren’t anything special.

But this boy beneath the sheet, this boy that we are starting to love, has more than his fair share of solitary fears. He is small for his age, skinny. The wind ruffles the edge of the sheet so that we can get a peek – yes, there it lies, meek and pale as a cracked brazil nut just out of its shell. Any day now he will turn the corner, sprout hair, an Adam’s apple budding in his throat, those arms and legs shooting out and down until they’re long and gangly with heavy hands and feet on the ends – just like his father’s, too big and clumsy to be much use. But he’s not quite ready yet. A thin arm whips up as he flings himself onto his back, exposing a slight, honey-brown torso, ribs showing through like the roots of a tree. Fingers curled on the pillow, as if he wants to ask a question.

Excuse me, Mrs Tucker, I don’t understand.

What don’t you understand, Billy?

Any of it.

What do you mean, any of it?

Her irritation curbs his confidence but doesn’t shut him up completely.

What we’re doing here. What it’s all about. Who we’re supposed to go to for the answers.

See the anxious eyeball flickering beneath the lid? It is as if he refuses to make the transition into adolescence until he gets some answers. And who can blame him? Not us. Certainly not us.

Such ridiculous questions, mutters Mrs Tucker.

It doesn’t make sense, that’s all. How am I supposed to know what’s right and what’s wrong? I don’t know who to ask.

Even as we watch he begins to slip, the muscles in his cheeks sliding into softness, the delicate mouth crushed against the pillow where a little pool of dribble will collect before morning. In a snap of a finger, he’s gone. Ah, what a shame, Billy, we appear to have run out of time. Jiss have to wait until tomorrow, won’t we?

Rebutted by Mrs Tucker, the useless cow.

Before our eyes, the unconscious body draws its extremities in towards the warmer core: the knees pulling up, the elbows folding in, the freckled nose burrowing down. And so the questions draw in too, their curious searchlights aimed now at his steadily thumping heart. If there are no answers out there, they will just have to make do with whatever they can find inside him: instincts, primeval knowledge – whatever they call them these days. Perhaps they will be found stencilled into the walls of his gut, secreted down blood-red tunnels, tucked inside folds of tissue like fossils.

A tightly twisted spiral of a snail shell preserved in all its wondrous detail. Palaeozoic, Mesozoic, Cenozoic. All these epochs hidden inside the body of little Billy Saint.

The bridge of his nose is smooth now, perfect as the bowl of a spoon. And the wind is bored. There’s nothing to play with here and it wants to move on – it’s what winds do, after all – and we’ll go with it, although we’ll be back to see this boy again. Once we’ve made up our minds, we never back down – and anyway, who are we to be choosy these days? The wind takes one last spin around the room and then, childishly, when we’re not looking, darts behind one of the slouching posters so that it flops right off the wall, doubling over in a little thunderclap of stiff paper, and the boy sits bolt upright in his bed, blinking in surprise, sees nothing but a disembodied square of pale curtain floating at the window, hears a quick rustling of the gum trees outside.

And then everything goes quiet.



Part I

the largest pair of knees

–How long you gunna take to fill that bedpan?

He opens his eyes to find himself confronted by the largest pair of knees he has ever seen. They are bold and black, the skin paler where it’s stretched over the humps, darker in the dips and hollows. They are not a perfect pair: the left is more bulbous than the right. It is as if they had been crafted by hand.

His eyes travel upwards. Thick, folded arms struggle to extricate themselves from beneath a heavy wedge of breast. When he reaches her face he sees that she is a full-blood. Her solid, protruding brow reaches right over the black eyes like the overhang of a cliff.

The nurse squints up at a bag of saline hanging from a metal stand. A plastic tube dangles down and disappears beneath a bandage on the back of his hand. Her lips move, counting drips. Four, five, six. Nine, ten, eleven. Then she flicks up the edge of his sheet with a finger and gives a small, breathy cry of exasperation.

– Get a move on, wontcha.

She is sharp with her high-pitched words, as if they are prickles in her mouth she has to spit out.

He turns away from her, mortified.

It’s the position.

Want me to get it moving?

Out of the corner of his eye, he can see that she is wriggling her forefinger: a child’s imitation of a mouse. Instinctively, he jerks his buttocks away and almost slips off the pan.

Ya kiddin.

She waits just long enough for him to realise his mistake.

You bet I am. You’d hev to be prettier for that.

She relishes the look on his face, practically licks her lips at it. Eyelids lowered to contain her satisfaction, she turns her body in the way that heavy people do, moving the chair to one side to save herself the job of stepping around it, and saunters off, her high-boned arse swilling from side to side like brandy in a glass.

She’s smiling to herself, he can tell. At the door of the ward she looks around and sniggers again.

Cecily thinks the whole business is hilariously funny. Billy can’t remember the last time he gave someone so much cause for amusement. He knows her name is Cecily because she has a badge pinned to her uniform. It hitches up the thin cotton fabric so that one breast looks higher than the other. The uniform is made of pale-blue graph-paper hatches.

He has an urge to use her name – both out of a desire to feel those Cs on his tongue, and to show that he likes her, that he might soften for her – but he hasn’t had a chance yet, and he’s not one to force these things. She reminds him of the women from back home, with her harsh voice and her air of absolute disinterest in what’s going on around her. She has a way of standing still amid the scurrying, her gaze skimming the tops of people’s heads.

Cecily.

It doesn’t suit her one bit, he decides, the hard rim of the bedpan digging into his coccyx. Far too delicate, ethereal a name for someone so solid, so real.

A woman in a flapping white doctor’s coat, her hair scraped back in a severe bun, sits on the edge of his bed and looks at him with unconcealed impatience. She has introduced herself simply as Ann, as if everyone should know who Ann is, what Ann does. Only by scrutinising her badge does he discover that she’s a psychiatric consultant, and that her full name is Ann Gould. Billy responds with contempt: she, after all, is the one who talks to the freaks.

– Can you tell me what you remember? she asks, rearranging the pink and green forms on her clipboard.

Billy’s not in the mood. He suspects that any probing will push his already sketchy memories even further into the shadows. But she presses him, says there’s a cop coming along shortly who will bully him into giving a story, any story, so he might as well get one worked out. She prompts him, as if he were a child.

This incident on the train. There was a fight, yes?

Surely the other bloke’s filled you in already.

– I need to hear your side of the story. The hows and whys of it. I’m not a fucken philosopher.

She raises the narrow arcs of her plucked eyebrows, lets the disdain spill freely from her eyes. Bullies come in many disguises, he thinks. He sighs.

Yeh, we had a fight, he says.

We?

That man, the American tourist, and me.

Describe him, please. For the record.

– Big and fat. Video camera slung over “is shoulder. White knee-high socks, freckled thighs. About as much subtlety in him as a fork-lift. He tails off, fragments of memory beginning to surface now. He lets them go, a separate strand from the story he is going to tell her.

Go on.

He wouldn’t get out of me way. He was sittin in me seat.

Sitting in your seat? But you didn’t have a seat –

– And so you had to hit the bugger, interjects Cecily. Unseen by either of them, the black nurse has crept into the curtained-off cubicle and is rearranging the glass of water and box of tissues on his bedside table, even though neither has been touched. Evidently she hadn’t wanted to miss Billy’s account.

– He was that shocked you’d have thought he didn’t know what fists were for! She is holding back a snigger but it escapes, a little gumpf of a snort, and she decides to give in to it. She stands up straight and wipes a tear from her eye. – Oh, you shoulda seen his face when they brought im in! It was like “e was saying, This wasn’t in the tourist brochure!

Billy can sense a stiffening in Ann’s body at the foot of his bed, forcing herself to sit out this interruption in good humour. Her pointed features are pinched shut like the clasp on a purse.

Cecily –

– Seemed to think Billy had bin planted out in the bush for their entertainment, part of the tourist show. Out to your left is a wild bushman, a very lucky sighting, you don’t see em often.

Cecily, I want to hear Mr Saint’s version of events. She nods at Billy.

Go on.

Billy shrugs. He was enjoying Cecily’s jokes. – I don’t remember any more, he says. Everyone was staring at me. I don’t know why.

Ann cocks her head. – I can tell you why, Mr Saint. You were blistered from the sun and rank as a five-day-old carcass. The driver of the Ghan Express saw you lying between the steel sleepers, as though you were waiting either to be hit by the train or to be carried back towards civilisation. Towards life. If he hadn’t been going so slowly it would certainly have been the former. I don’t think you appreciate how lucky you are.

Cecily is blowing her nose now with a cotton hanky and Billy smiles as he watches her blocking one nostril and then the other. She doesn’t look like the women back west any more. She is just a nurse, at home enough here to disrupt the doctor’s interrogation and not care. Billy is impressed by her, how she has found a niche for herself in this white institution, hoisting herself firmly out of no-man’s-land and dumping her bulky frame down here as if she had never doubted her right to it all along. – I was thirsty, Billy says quietly. I didn’t want to die. I was looking for a drink of water.

And so you thought you’d hitch a ride.

She bores in with her determined eyes. Billy turns away, scrutinises the cream and tan geometric pattern on the curtains by his bed.

Do you remember anything else at all, Mr Saint?

Yeh, I do. They were playing Casablanca on TV.

Afterwards, Cecily wheels him to the bathroom and positions him squarely in front of a full-length mirror. She says she wants to get him neatened up before the cop arrives. The bathroom is a large, rectangular room, fitted out for the elderly and infirm – metal rails either side of the toilet, a raised plastic seat. Billy hadn’t thought he’d find himself using a bathroom like this just yet.

He slouches in silence while she opens a cabinet and takes out a pressurised can. She squirts a ball of foam on to her palm and offers it to him as if he were a horse, a white cloud cupped beneath his mouth. He sits there sullenly, intent on his humiliation. She waits a full half minute then she picks up his chin and slaps the foam against his jaw. Specks of it spray out like the froth of a wave hitting rock. Billy looks up with the shock of it, catches her eyes in the mirror. They direct him to his own. And there he is, not yet twenty-four years old but going on ninety – the face of a man who has travelled to the limits of his existence and witnessed something horrible lying beyond. The blue-ringed eyes are sunk deep in his skull, the skin falling away beneath with all the sagging hopelessness of a bloodhound. Billy notices with what little curiosity he has left for such things how bony his nose has become, how it’s topped with a raised black scab. How the skin on his cheeks is blistered and raw in some places and peeling off in others. Straws of pale hair stick out in odd directions and clots of old blood are trapped in the straggles of beard around his mouth. Jesus, it was an ugly beard – not a thick, curly, ruddy one like Rossco’s, but a scrawny, willowy thing, like the greasy tufts you see curling over the collar of a bagman.

Fucken “ansome fella, ay.

Cecily’s face is composed. She can be the consummate professional when she chooses to be.

It’s all looking a bit crook now, but it’ll soon come right.

He’s touched by the tenderness in her voice. She holds up a disposable razor, her pink tongue pushing through the gap in her front teeth. Go on then, Billy says softly.

She spreads the foam to the edge of his jaw. Then she holds the skin taut with the span of two fingers and bends close. Concentration ruckles her brow. Billy keeps his eyes open, daring himself to stare at the black skin close up, the individual pricks of the pores, the few stray hairs encroaching onto the temple; daring himself not to look away.

In the quiet of the bathroom, they listen to the sound of the stubble being shorn. For Billy, it is something to cling to, the first unequivocal sound in weeks. Cecily makes no mention of the tiny white scars that appear on the surface of his face like flotsam in the razor’s wake.


Copyright ” 2003 by Susan Elderkin. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

Reading Group Guide

1. Although she is not Australian, Elderkin takes the reader into her own deep understanding of that region’s culture and natural history. How does she do this? What are the pieces of knowledge that make you trust the story?

2. Parts of The Voices could take place only in Australia. On other levels the book is universal. How does the story speak to all of us? Think of issues of identity, parenting, marriage, coming-of-age, and friendship and its tests. Other issues? How does Elderkin’s book transcend the merely regional aspects of the bush world and colonialism?

3. How are male and female attitudes depicted? Where do they intersect dramatically? Are the characters in the book able to learn from one another? Consider Estha and Stevo, Stan and Crystal, Billy and Janelle, Cecily and Maise, Emmeline and Arthur. Others?

4.

How would you explain Aboriginal wisdom? Mark Twain, speaking about his mixed-blood character Pudd’nhead Wilson, said “Many a man has been labeled a fool, and has died with that label still on him, when the community might very well have gone to him for wisdom and counsel.” Are there other stories or films you think of that set up this ironic relation between conventional wisdom and knowledge of a different order? Consider Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” King Lear’s fool, Langston Hughes’s character Simple, and the film The Gods Must Be Crazy, as well as the Alan Bates film King of Hearts.

5. Describe the Aboriginal worldview. Bruce Chatwin writes in The Songlines, “What makes Aboriginal song so hard to appreciate is the endless accumulation of detail. Yet even a superficial reader can get a glimpse of a moral universe–as moral as the New Testament–in which the structures of kinship reach out to all living men, to all his fellow creatures, and to the rivers, the rocks, and the trees.” Did you, in fact, identify a moral universe in the book? Where is it made explicit?

6. What makes Billy a candidate for the spirit world? Loneliness? Curiosity? Need for love? See pages 23–24 for thoughts on silence and listening. Does Billy become the chosen one through the stones that he honors and through which he reads the history of the land? Is it through his beloved kangaroos he emulates with his jumping? Is it an ear attuned to voices that white people might call schizophrenia?
Do you think Billy is representing the spirit world when he rearranges the teeth of Dexter J. Kramer? What is Kramer’s offending act for which Billy might be exacting justice?

7. “What will happen to the children?” (p. 240). Explain the anguish about lost children in the book. Reread the chapter “Any Picaninnies Here?” starting on page 255 and talk about the film Rabbit Proof Fence if you have seen it. How do both Billy and the spirit child represent the thousands of children stolen away from the Aborigines–all in the name of civilizing and assimilating them?

8. It is often said that conflict is essential to a well-crafted story. If that is true in The Voices, is the conflict about competition? Survival? Are there winners and losers? Who are they? By what standards?

9. What do you see as the main difference between the white people and the Aborigines? Do the people of mixed blood have access to both worlds? Give examples. Do you see the problem areas as mostly economic? Spiritual? How does Elderkin write about these issues? With sympathy and understanding for both sides? With outrage? Satiric humor?
Do you see a bleak picture or some optimism in the novel? What do you deduce from the epilogue? Do you hear something of the Book of Revelation? A hallelujah chorus?

10. Talk about the importance of music to the people in this book. Recall the part-singing of the spirits (pp. 272–273) and Jimmi Rangi’s singing “Blowing in the Wind” appropriately (p. 14). Talk about the music of Shane on page 308. When Maisie sings from the top of the escarpment, the song “pours from her like a liquid, although it’s a discordant song–rugged, full of unexpected corners. . . . She seems to be surveying the landscape as much as he does, seeing things in places where others see nothing” (p. 87). Talk about this passage. Can you suspend disbelief long enough to accept Maisie’s “I just sung you up. . . . You’ll love me for ever now” (p. 88-89). And she has created Wallamba–kangaroo boy. What does this mean?
Find a recording of Aboriginal music to make the novel come even more alive for you.

11. Talk about Stan and Stevo as individuals and as lovers and fathers. How do they share not only Crystal but also Billy? How is Billy influenced by Stevo? What becomes of the three: Stan, Stevo, and Crystal?

12. As a reader you may not find characters’ behavior estimable. Elderkin says, “I read somewhere that an author shouldn’t judge . . . characters. That means you have to go along with them, whether you like what they’re doing or not.” Is it possible for you as a reader to like characters you disapprove of? Talk about “good” characters and “bad” in the book.

13. Elderkin has said, “Writing a novel involving Aborigines brings with it extra issues–for a white person, it is considered more or less taboo.” What are the taboos that emerge in the book? These taboos bring menace and dread. Which characters come to ill by breaking them? Do taboos also provide solidarity to Aborigines, a sense of honoring tribal history? What are powerful taboos in our own “tribes’? Do you think the author might be satirizing her own younger self in the character of Rebecca Hetherington?

14. Who is the spirit child? Is she a will-o-the-wisp, a Lorelei/siren? Is she a projection of Billy’s own longing, something he ‘sings up”? What is the relationship between her and the voices–and the wind? Competition, love, grief–how do you sort out the complexities? See page 216 for discussion.

15. What does Janelle represent? Consider her grace on skates and Billy’s saying “Teach me.” Does she in fact teach him? Why is Billy holding back with Janelle? Do you agree with her theory that he doesn’t want to give anything away? (Do we see that quality of his elsewhere?) What do her grace and independence and humor remind you of? And her need for Billy. What do her children provide for Billy?

16. What does Coldiver stand for? What are some incidents that illustrate his role in the town? What ultimately happens to him and his dreams and schemes? Who is his nemesis?

17. What motivates Billy? What does he need? Love? Knowledge? To prove his manhood? Which of these needs does he fill and how? Billy also needs freedom throughout his life. What is he trying to free himself from? Family and the pain of his parents? His own fears and sense of inadequacy? What else? The voices? Imprisonment of various kinds? Does he achieve freedom in the end?

18. What is it about Billy’s eyes? A distant look of the quester? There is an odd intensity that unsettles other people, starting with Crystal. In the hospital, Billy is astonished by James’s nerve, as no one, “Not even Harri, his shift boss down in the mine, had been able to hold Billy’s gaze for more than a couple of seconds’ (p. 45). Is something eerie suggested here?

19. Do you see any similarities between the wry and even dark humor of the Aborigines and that of other oppressed people? Think of the blues in song and poetry. What about Jewish humor born of repression, exile, and the Holocaust, as in Maus? Can you think of other examples?

20. Billy is initiated, but into what? He can have no tribal identification. Has his been some kind of Dantean journey toward knowledge? Is it a heart of darkness he has entered into (“The horror!” of Conrad)? Has he achieved an epiphany with some kind of attendant grace? How do you see him changed by the end of the book?
Were you reminded of stories like the Holy Grail, with the world in a state of ruin that must be revived by a hero who completes some mystical mission or sacrifice? Does Billy fit this role? Cecily tells him in the hospital, “You’re not nearly as lame as you were before” (p. 148). Was his suffering necessary for his initiation to the spirit world? What do you think will be his future?
After his initiation, when Billy is wandering like a pilgrim back toward civilization, he is struck by the beauty of nature, the revelation of the gray roos in great numbers. Then, “At dusk he sees a flock of white corellas sitting like bits of torn sheet in the branches of a tree, stark cut-outs against the slate blue sky. . . . Quietness seeps into his pores.” And he sees a slope covered with a purplish haze of wildflowers. “Billy stands there staring stupidly, not knowing what to do with so much beauty, how to contain it, how to make it part of him” (p. 301). Is this another stage of his initiation, the longing to merge with the natural world?

21. Talk about the idea of redemption in the book. Billy, told by the spirits he needs to be punished in order to be redeemed, consigns himself to a purgatory in the mines, not only shut away from the open earth and sky he loves but also tormented by a barrage of noise. What do these years in the mine do to Billy? Why did he need to be punished?
In the hospital he reflects on his journey. “For a long time, he realises, he hasn’t dared go near silence. These years spent hiding underground have been a sentence. He always accepted his own guilt; he hadn’t needed to be told. No punishment is greater than the one you inflict on yourself. He sees this now; how a guilty man denies himself the thing he loves most. Perhaps, now, he can afford to acquit himself, to let the silence back in” (p. 46). Discuss this passage.

22. How is transformation central to The Voices? Metamorphosis is part of man’s idea of the universe from Homer to the Bible to writers like Yeats and Joyce. Talk about this idea and give other examples. Metamorphosis is available not only to the gods and the spirit world but also to human beings who have faith. What do you make of the blending and mutations of characters in this novel?
It is not only miracles and the senses that transform reality but also language and other arts. To paint a picture, compose a sonata, or write a novel is to effect a metamorphosis. Have you felt fundamentally changed by a work of art?

23. What do birds signify in the novel? Are they omens? When? Are they symbols of grace bestowed? Which ones and to whom? Do birds represent forces superior to mere human power? Think about birds used symbolically in other contexts: the Holy Ghost, the eagle, the raven, the dove. Others?

24. Do you think Elderkin came to believe the Aboriginal myths? She does not seem eager to explain away magical events. As a creative artist, could Elderkin be closer to dreaming/singing up new realities than those of us mired in mere rationalism?

25. The beginning of life and its end are consuming concerns for the “civilized” and the ‘savage” alike. How do characters in this book attempt to understand these bedrock issues? Does Elderkin imply that progress has been made through science and modern technology? Does Billy’s elated acquiescence to pain and physical transformation prefigure how he might face his own death?

26. From the late eighteenth century until 1992 the term “terra nullius’ (no one’s land) was used by settlers to justify seizing Aboriginal land. What is particularly ironic about the term, given the hunter-gatherer nature of the Aboriginals as well their reverence for the land?

27. Talk about the wind’s role as provocateur. Why does the wind goad the spirits? “Well, you’ve just about been made redundant, haven’t you?” (p. 239). How does the recurring dialogue among voices, spirit child, and wind reveal main concerns of the book?

28. Do the spirits in their hammocks remind you of the Lotus Eaters? When they claim that ‘sleep, forgetfulness, drugs,” will help them, the wind screams, “I’m trying to wake you out of your stupors!” (p. 239). What is meant by ‘stupors’?

29. If Billy is a quester, is the reader one, too? Did you find that you, like Billy, came to knowledge only in steps and even then not completely? What are the elements of mystery that remain unresolved for you?

30. How does Cecily act as a mediating figure for Billy? Is she a bridge between the rational world of the hospital and the spirit world of the Aborigines? What is her defining act of courage? Think, too, of Tama’s courage when she says, ‘shoot one more cockatoo and you’re dead, Mr. Coldiver” (p. 234).

31. Find some of your favorite passages of evocative imagery and talk about them. You might start with page 184 for a powerful word painting. Does this style of writing say something about Aboriginal values?

32. How does Jimmi serve as a link to the spirit world? (See pages 267–268.)

33. Why is this book important for our choices today? Robert Lawlor, in Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime, has said, ‘dreams, collective memories and imagining are more potent than religious faith or scientific theories in lifting us above the catastrophic ending that confronts us all.” Do you agree?
Do you think we can learn from ancestral voices enough to transform our personal limitations? Our collective destiny?

34. How is The Voices a synthesis of fantasy and realism? Did you find yourself in a twilight zone between this world and another? Do we have a choice of taking Billy’s story literally or symbolically? What is the chance that Billy might be mentally disordered?

35. How do we learn best about unfamiliar cultures? Some people refuse to read fiction, claiming they have only time to read “true” books, such as history. What does good fiction provide that raises our understanding dramatically? Apart from this book, what other novels have you read that you felt successfully introduced you to a new culture? Do you think we have an obligation to understand foreign points of view and even language? Was the liberal use of native language a help or a hindrance in reading the book?