The River

Patrice Newell,
Penguin, $24.95


Patrice Newell's first book, (2000), was a memoir of her farming life in the upper Hunter. It was also a rare work of contemporary nature writing, in the spirit of Henry David Thoreau, although you could have been forgiven for reading it, as many readers did, as a kind of antipodean. Her new book marks a deepening ecological engagement with her country. It tells the story - through time, through drought, through black and white possession - of the river, the Pages, that waters the property, Elmswood, on which her olives grow and her cattle range, and where she and Phillip Adams have lived for sixteen years now. The book is a work of witness. It is also an act of politics - a passionate testimony on behalf of a river depleted by over-irrigation, degraded by over-clearing, and now facing a life sentence from an over-ambitious coal mine planned for the Pagesí upper reaches. The book is an argument for water in a time of dryness. If the book-as-politics succeeds, the river may survive. If not, these may be the last years of the Pages and this book may be its memorial.

'I write to be read,' Patrice Newell says to me in her kitchen. 'And I stop when I think I've said it.' She writes because she has something to say about a river and its fate; because she wants to change people's minds, because she wants to save a river from strangulation and, right now, from a coal mine. She talks straight, and she is wary of lyrical evocation. 'I pulled it right back,' she says of a book that she first conceived of as a kind of river walk. 'How much can I really bang on about poncing down the river?'

Patrice Newell is a prosy writer, but there is a voice in her work that elevates it beyond the journalistic. And there is writerly craft. The book is a fragmentary narrative, a vernacular and unregulated stream of consciousness. Like the river in drought, this book is a broken chain of waterholes. But like the river, its flow continues out of sight, even when it stops on the surface. Artfully, Patrice Newell freights her discontinuous narrative with the sediment of several stories, which surface and disappear and resurface over its length - the story of a farm and a river in drought, the natural history of a river, the author's truncated walk from the river's rise to its sad end, the threat of the mine, the tending of her olive groves, the convoluted geology (wonderfully encapsulated) of the river's terrain, something of the aboriginal possession of the river, something of her life on the land with Phillip Adams and their daughter Aurora. And there are other sub-stories carried in this river of a book - there's Ben Hall's mother, Eliza, the Capuchin monks at the head of the river, Phillipís illness and recovery, a small moving parable about a determined old cow. It takes a lot of skill in a writer - though Iím sure a river could do it in its sleep - to keep track of all these characters and plotlines and bear them along without seeming to try.

Her writing's vernacular poetry lies in the voice - vulnerable, indomitable, humble - in which she speaks of what she knows and says what needs to be said.