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by Adrian Hyland
Soho, May 2010
372 pages
ISBN: 1569476365

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Adrian Hyland's first book featuring Emily Tempest, MOONLIGHT DOWNS (also published as DIAMOND DOVE), won the prestigious Ned Kelly Award for Best First Novel. It has been a long wait for Emily's return, but it has been worth it. It's a stunning book.

Emily Tempest is a mixed race woman, daughter of an aboriginal woman and a self-taught outback miner, who grew up among an indigenous group that was trying to preserve their traditional ways. She was expelled after her headstrong curiosity led her to break a taboo. After several unfinished university degrees and a trek around the world, she returned to see if she could reconnect to her heritage. Now her understanding of both the "whitefeller" and indigenous worlds has led to a new job as an Aboriginal Community Police Officer. Unfortunately, the man who appointed her is sidelined by an injury, and his uptight by-the-books replacement doesn't take to Emily's outspoken opinions. When an old miner she'd known as a child is murdered, he's quick to assume it was the unfortunate outcome of a drunken brawl, but she senses something else is going on. The old geologist left behind a curious pile of stones, a labyrinth of rocks that seem to be a map but a map of what?

When she accuses her boss of conducting a slapdash investigation, he's indignant; her role is explaining the law to her people: "trying to persuade them not to stuff a dozen brothers into the back of the pickup truck when they're running home from the boozer. Getting the kids to go to school. Maybe even gathering a bit of dirt on which of them's responsible for the epidemic of drugs and break-ins that seems to underpin the economy of this town." She has no business in a white man's homicide investigation.

But Emily won't back off, and she has an edge over the newcomer: "I'd been away, sure, but I knew this country: I knew its people, crazy and sane. I knew its cracked landscape. I understood the way the two intertwined. Something was amiss. Out of place." And the dead miner's map takes her on a difficult journey as she tries to locate that aberration.

There's nothing formulaic about Hyland's writing. It mixes rough humor, a baked and austerely beautiful landscape, and a deep love for the people of the Northern Territory, black and white. In the opening scene, Emily is participating in a ceremony as boys leave on a journey to become men. She takes hope in what she sees. "It was the songs that did it: the women didn't so much sing as pick them up like radio receivers. You could imagine those great song cycles rolling across country, taking their shape from what they encountered: scraps of language, minerals and dreams, a hawk's flight, a feather's fall, the flash of a meteorite."

The ceremony is interrupted when a fight breaks out and one of the women, whose grandson had hanged himself in the town jail, whose brother died after a lingering bout with cancer, whose world has fallen apart, tells Emily "They killin us with their machine dreams and poison. Kandiyi karlujana . . ." The song is broken.

Adrian Hyland helps us see the beauty in both the broken song and the enduring strength of the people he writes about with such honesty and love. It's a remarkable achievement.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, July 2010

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