Monday, July 25, 2011

Never Lie When You Can Sleep: Dreaming Up The Waterboys

In a radical reimagining of Western Australian history, Peter Docker presents a land 300 years after colonisation, where the West’s most sought-after resource is not iron ore but water. The Aboriginal people are waging a guerrilla war against the eastern states Water Board, who have been controlling the West and its water for one hundred years in a secondary colonisation. Central to The Waterboys are Conway and his friend and fellow soldier Mularabone and the tale begins with the two young men stealing a Water Board truck to smuggle water. Mularabone’s people live underground in a warren of caves reminiscent of the North West’s Windjana Gorge, where the Aboriginal warrior Jandamarra held his last stand. Their methods of resistance are digital meets herbal; cloaking devices and holograms and then body pastes made from plants and ochre to combat the deadly ultraviolet light.

 If you are already thinking that Western Australian secessionist ideas are being excavated in The Waterboys, you would be correct ... kind of. For this story also takes the reader back to the moment of British colonisation, when Captain Fremantle steps off the edge of Empire and dares Captains Stirling and Irwin to embrace the Country and start behaving like more respectful guests. In this novel, frontier violence on the Swan River takes place between His Majesty’s frigates.

The Ghost of History chapters tell how Captain Fremantle meets the Nyoongar people the day he fell into the Swan River and his previous life as an agent of imperial expansion dissolved into one of song, dance and understanding the land. The character of Fremantle is one of the most splendid I have encountered in literature in a long time. Who in the world would I most want to have dinner with? Captain Fremantle aka Wobbegong from The Waterboys. (Wobbegong? Yes, you gotta read the book). In this passage he is about to take on the Royal Navy to defend the Countrymen and Nyoongar Boodjar:

The two Djenga sailors in the wooden boat apply themselves to the oars, and the little rowboat pulls away towards the Challenger. Wobbegong sits upright in the little rowboat. That Royal Navy is still stamped all over his posture – I doubt if he could slump, even if he tried. He is still shirtless, but he has donned his Royal Navy captain’s hat. He stands up to buckle his cutlass.
On his ship, I can see that Wobbegong has had the HMS scratched off, and now there are three large concentric circles painted in red before the name Challenger.   p. 327.

Navigating these jumps in timeline, as well as entering the water diviner Conway’s sporadic dreaming, was a bit like reading Trainspotting for me: once I got the hang of the lingo I was away, riding on Docker’s audacious speculation of a whole new history.  The Dreaming 44 chapters reflect some nasty moments of our own present – the organised chase of a prisoner through corn fields that echoes a 1930’s Klan hunt, or the mindset of a man chained up in the back of a paddy wagon, or sitting in the tray of a crowded ute, child on lap and a drunk driver up front. Jack’s pissed. Eyes shining, lips red as sex, cheeks glowing with malice and laughter and alcohol.

Infiltrating the book is another, darker dreaming. Peter Docker cracks open our country’s drinking culture with his grog dreaming theme:

We’re watching telly. Me and the other Water Board troopers. I look around to see us all lounging around in uniform. My mates and me. We’re drinkin beer. I’m drinkin beer. On the piss with me mates. Maybe my brain has forgotten that soon my body will get sick ... I hear myself laughing and I don’t know why. Even here, in my drug-dulled state, wearing the Water Board uniform, there is something else. I know this is a lie. That the heart of the grog dreaming is about lies. p. 77.

Docker triumphs in The Waterboys with his audacious reordering of history. I did worry that the centre of the book would not hold, so wild is the narrative and the dreaming. However Docker reins in the chaos to produce a great novel and, as is the way with good speculative fiction, tells a few home truths about brothers, Countrymen and women and the state of Western Australia. Historical Nyoongar people such as Midgegooroo, Munderan and Yagan are all here, not named but beautifully recognisable through their demeanours and descriptions. After reading The Waterboys, my only disappointment is that Wobbegong will never swim out of the Swan River and ask me out to dinner.

Ultimately, I feel that this book is about brothers, or the light and shadow of a man. Conway and his brother Jack (a nod here to George Johnston’s classic Australian novel), Greer and Sarge, brothers-in-arms Conway and Mularabone, Wobbegong and Holy Water. Peter Docker pulls off this examination of manhood without resorting to simplistic good/evil binaries or men’s group clichés. The stunning front cover illustration reveals that light and dark – if you look closely, you can see the ‘fidgety little bastard’ in the child’s eyes.

The Waterboys
Peter Docker
Fremantle Press
363 pp
$27.95 paperback

This review is also posted at Overland Blog.


  1. Striking review Sarah. The literary wagon rolls on. This sounds inventive as much as considered.

  2. Yes, it is considered. I really liked meeting these characters from history, given the same roles but different.