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Capricornia : a novel by Xavier Herbert

Capricornia : a novel (edition 1938)

by Xavier Herbert

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268689,216 (3.74)22
Winner of the Sesquicentennial Literary Prize, this novel offers an insight into Aboriginal issues and race relations.
Title:Capricornia : a novel
Authors:Xavier Herbert
Info:London ; Sydney : Angus & Robertson, 1971, c1938.
Collections:Your library

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Capricornia by Xavier Herbert


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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. ( )
1 vote crashmyparty | May 14, 2014 |
This novel seems influenced by The Grapes of Wrath; its comparable to Catch 22 with its huge cast and removed, bemused narrator while it seems to have influenced Tim Winton’s colloquial humour and affection for the bush rascal. Long patches of crude sermonising in the middle. It seems as if he ran out of puff. But he comes back compellingly. The other writer he reminds me of is Cormac McCarthy, because of the passion for the landscape that they share and the harshness.
1 vote nathanhobby | Oct 30, 2010 |
I enjoyed this book. It took a while to get into, the pace in the early part of the book leads to an almost documentary style as various characters are introduced, explained and then dismissed or killed off! Once we reach Norman's return to Capricornia after he has grown up down south, the pace slows and the story really starts to develop.

The author does a good job of bringing the horrific treatment of aboriginal and mixed race people to life through the experiences of the principal characters in this story.

At times I was a little unsure where the story was headed, but as 'motorbike' has noted below, the description of the Australian landacape conjures up a rich picture that helps to fill in where the story meanders a little. ( )
1 vote jhoddinott | Feb 1, 2010 |
I enjoyed: true, the plot sprawled - it was a saga - and the writing was sometimes inelegant. But the humour redeemed it. Even though Herbert was obviously angered by the treatment of Indigenous people, and frustrated by the central government of the day, the wry comments and slapstick moments leavened it. ( )
2 vote TedWitham | Dec 21, 2009 |
This book is not an easy or pretty read, and literary-wise, little to offer. The introduction to my edition described the difficulty XH had in finding a publisher. The book was rejected not just for its "shocking content" but also for its poor writing. The eventual publisher had his editor rework much of the novel to such an extent that the editor tried to claim co-authorship! The book’s value lies less with its literary qualities and more as "fictionalised history" - describing black/white relations in colonial Australia.

This is a generational story starting with two brothers who come to Capricornia to make their fortune. The elder Oscar finds success, marries into an established family and ends up a cattle station owner. The younger Mark is restless and leads a swashbuckling life and is eventually forced to flee.

It is through Mark that we experience the racially divided Capricornian society, of the whites, the blacks and the half-castes, with the half-casts despised by both the other groups. In addition to the exploitative actions of whites we learn of white men’s taste for “black velvet”, sex with young aboriginal girls, and its destructive effects on aboriginal society.

It is through Mark’s half-caste son Norman that we experience the life of a half-caste, which is the main theme of the book. Through a series of circumstances he is adopted by Oscar, and taken to the city where he is brought up as a white and ignorant of his true origins. He returns to Capricornia a young adult with a white man’s culture and an apprenticeship. But none of these attributes can overcome the fact that he is a half-caste. As Norman tries to establish himself in Capricornia and discover the truth of his background, he encounters the full discrimination of the half-castes and suffers its inevitable fate.

In this depressing story it is the landscape that shines. XH conjures up great images of the vast beauty of tropical Australia, its power and its savagery. It is the landscape that XH hopes will provide the one potential unifying element in the otherwise opposing cultures of white and aboriginal.

The story carries a strong moral for contemporary society. For white Australians, it is to recognise the savage and brutal treatment of aborigines in its colonial past, and that given a chance, the aboriginals can adapt and contribute to white society. For aborigines, it is a stark reminder that when your environment changes you must change, otherwise you face a degrading path towards oblivion. ( )
  motorbike | Aug 27, 2009 |
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Winner of the Sesquicentennial Literary Prize, this novel offers an insight into Aboriginal issues and race relations.

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A saga of life in the Northern Territories and the clash of white and Aborigine cultures - one of Australia's all-time best-selling novels and an inspiration for Baz Luhrmann's lavish film 'AUSTRALIA'.Capricornia has been described as one of Australia's 'great novels', a sharply observed chronicle about life in the Northern Territory of Australia and the inhumane treatment suffered by Aborigines at the hands of white men. The story is immense and rambling, laced with humour that is often as bitter and as harsh as the terrain in which it is set, and follows with irony the fortunes (and otherwise) of a range of Outback characters over a span of generations. Through their story is reflected the story of Australia, the clash of personalities and cultures that provide the substance on which today's society is founded. Above all, however, this is a novel of protest and of compassion - for the Aborigines and half-bloods of Australia's 'last frontier'.Sprawling, explosive, thronged with characters, plots and sub-plots, Capricornia is without doubt one of the best known and widely read Australian novels of the last 70 years. When it was first published it was acclaimed as 'a turning point', an 'outstanding work of social protest'. Its message is as penetrating today as it was in the 1930s when Herbert himself was official 'Protector of Aborigines' at Darwin
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