Shifting Timescapes and the Significance of the Mine in Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria


This article proposes a reading of Alexis Wright’s epic novel Carpentaria that focuses on the mine and its impacts as central to any understanding of the novel. Carpentaria offers a stark portrayal of how resource extraction is intimately linked with both colonisation and capitalism and is sustained through state-sanctioned violence and nationalist ideologies. This article explores the dichotomy between Normal Phantom, who views mining as just another phenomenon in the vast expanse of time, and his son Will, who fights the mine on the understanding that it is an unprecedented threat to the survival of the Waanyi people and their Country. Although I suggest that this wider debate, and the forms of agency it represents, remains unresolved in the novel, I conclude with a meditation on the critically neglected character of Kevin who complicates the novel’s uneasy resolution. In the light of ongoing debates about the Adani mine, Carpentaria is more relevant than ever.

Published in 2006, Alexis Wright’s epic novel, Carpentaria, quickly became a national classic. Described as ‘the greatest, most inventive and mesmerising Indigenous epic ever produced in Australia’ (Shoemaker 55) and a ‘huge audacious monstrous work of genius’ (Guest), it was awarded Australia’s most prestigious literary prize in 2007, the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Although hailed as the ‘Great Australian Novel’, Carpentaria presents a major challenge to the settler project on which the nation state is founded.

Carpentaria is set in the fictional coastal town of Desperance in the Southern Gulf of Carpentaria in north-western Queensland, which floods regularly from monsoonal rains and tides. The novel focuses on the members of an Aboriginal family and the ways in which they negotiate the wide-reaching effects associated with the establishment of a multinational mine. It is a sprawling and multi-faceted narrative inhabited by a huge cast of human characters and non-human agents…

The full text of this essay is available to ALS subscribers

Please sign in to access this article and the rest of our archive.

Published 29 October 2020 in Volume 35 No. 2. Subjects: Aboriginal land rights & native title, Capitalism, Indigenous literature & writers, Alexis Wright, Indigenous history and culture, Ideology of Mining, Politics of Writing, Waanyi people.

Cite as: Nolan, Maggie. ‘Shifting Timescapes and the Significance of the Mine in Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, 2020, doi: 10.20314/als.5910cfb010.