The Conversations at Curlow Creek by David Malouf (thoughts)
I think I’ve gotten The Conversations at Curlow Creek by David Malouf out from the library at least three times and returned it unread. I keep getting it because I loved his novel Remembering Babylon and wanted to read more of him, but somehow I never got around to picking it up. Finally, a couple of days before it was due yet again, I decided enough was enough and began reading.
It only took a few pages for me to fall under Malouf’s spell: this book is so, so good. Taking place in the nineteenth century, set partly in his native Australia, set partly in Ireland, the novel is structured around a night spent in the remote Outback, at Curlow Creek, where an outlaw will be hung by four policeman in the morning. Three of those are lower class Australians who have been ‘cleaning up the bush’ as officials for weeks and happened to capture a gang of Irishmen who escaped from prison duty. The fourth, Michael, has been sent from Sydney to oversee the execution; he’s the Crown’s representative to make the hanging more official, but it quickly becomes clear he has a personal investment in conversing with the convicted man. Woven in between the Australian scenes are Michael’s remembrances of his Irish childhood, in which the reader learns more about why he’s in Australia and who he’s hoping to find.
This is one of those exquisite novels that combines a variety of characters who all feel powerfully real (and have distinct voices) with a plot that raises profound philosophical questions in a marvelously drawn setting that brings the reader to the place and is told in a perfectly controlled tone of voice. It’s the kind of novel that makes me reach for ever more adjectives and adverbs, even though I know they’re a sign of weak writing, to try to convey just how wonderful it is. And it’s the kind of novel that I never describe to my own satisfaction and in the end can only throw my hands up and say “go read it already!”.
I can’t recommend it enough to those who enjoy smart but compelling stories, literary fiction, international fiction with a strong sense of place, or readers who love novels that tease out the nuances of relationships between people and ideas. And I know I won’t be waiting four years until to read another Malouf!