I picked this book up from the bookshelf in my local shop because of the cover – yes all the marketing people in publishing houses all over the world would jump for joy if they heard me say that (did you know that 90% of books are picked up because of their cover? Just a by-the-by snippet there!)
The red dirt attracted me, as did the fact it was based in Alice Springs. The Oldest Song in the World, came home with me and is now sitting next to bed, being read at any moment I have spare. I love Sue’s lyrical way with words.
When I was writing “The Oldest Song in the World”, is was pre-occupied by the dilemma of a young woman who’d grown up on a river but now was marooned in the city amongst grey office machines that smelled of plastic – and who hadn’t fitted into the schedules one’s expected to: past her mid-thirties, she still hadn’t found a long-term relationship, she hadn’t found a long-term career and sashayed around in odd jobs, she’d got in to a university but wasn’t committed to her course, and she was past her most beautiful, which had never been remarkable anyway. She was just an ordinary person, but she’d learned to flirt very early and efficiently, and this led to being sex-obsessed.
“While the furry man slept, I counted the other men I’d slept with, my fingers one by one tapping the silent sheet, like a child doing a difficult addition in the hope of impressing a teacher the next day…It seemed to me that a morally good person would remember the names or at least the faces of the men she’d slept with…All I could remember clearly was my longing for transformation, and afterwards, when they left, an appalling loss. Remembering an exact number at leas, seemed proper….But on one counting, I remembered seventeen, on another, twenty-three. It was a sort of counting of sheep, although I was a shepherd hoping to find out that her flock was small.”
Her sex –obsession went back to the river of her childhood, where she’d grown up with a neighbouring boy, the son of her father’s sumptuous mistress. As a child knowing far more about the sexual play between men and women than any of the adults around imagined she’d noticed, before puberty she’d fallen in love with Ian- and then he disappeared.
Meanwhile, my own life took an unexpected turn. I’d been living on the river I was describing, but I agreed to go with my eighteen-year old daughter to live in the Northern Territory, moving around several aboriginal settlements, and while my daughter did work-experience, I kept writing about my river girl, despite what was happening in the settlement. Sometimes I’d note down what I’d hear people say outside, so my manuscript about a river was spattered with desert comments, but most of the time, to the amusement of the white people around me, (“Haven’t you left the coast yet?” they’d laugh), in the middle of that dry, red sand I determinedly kept daydreaming about the silver light from my river. It was only when I got back to Sydney and heard people at parties talk (often rubbish) about the Aboriginal “problem”, that the life of my mid-thirties woman took a turn, and out of the blue, she was sent to an Aboriginal desert settlement (like linguists I’d seen) to record a women’s-only song, known only to one woman who was dying. The song turns out to be extremely ancient- the oldest surviving song in the world, and the old dying woman almost impossible to find. It’s a race against time that changes my woman forever.