MURDER IN UTOPIA - Philip McLaren
There are a lot of reasons why I move heaven and earth to get hold of a Philip McLaren book when I hear there's a new one in the offing. Firstly, as you can probably pick from the synopsis above, there's a very dry, understated wit in McLaren's story-telling style. He's also writing about his own people, in a way that's both affectionate and exasperated. He's also frequently very very pointed about the difficulties Aboriginal people in Australia face on a daily basis.
What McLaren is doing in MURDER IN UTOPIA is really interesting. He runs a parallel story of a young Aboriginal girl in Australia, against a disgraced New York doctor both of whom collide in Utopia. McLaren hastens to add this is not a book about the real Utopia - rather it's a fictional setting for his book, stating "I found the irony irresistible: imagine naming a place Utopia, a place so impoverished, so desolate."
The narrative moves forward bringing Jack Nugent to outback Australia and a community in need of medical services, as well as a community struggling against so many issues - alcohol, violence, neglect, poor housing, tensions with authorities. All of these are told from both points of view - from the American, doctor, outsider with alcohol problems of his own, and from people within the community. A ritual killing becomes a catalyst for people to adjust their views and for the depth of the problems in the community to be dragged into the daylight.
The structure of this book really works well, and whilst it is obvious that there is a lot of opinions and observations of reality being voiced within the narrative, fair enough. In fact it's a privilege to read a fictional story addressing real-life issues in an Aboriginal voice, and the occasional stridency or maybe sledge-hammer adjustment of plot to make a point seemed perfectly reasonable in the circumstances.
Not a book for readers looking just for "pure entertainment" MURDER IN UTOPIA is a book for readers that want to learn something about issues we should be more aware of, written by somebody who obviously knows.
Doctor Jack Nugent never liked looking at dead people and he hated touching them. In spite of this, he acquired detailed knowledge as to what happened to human remains. In the small community of Utopia, in the middle of Australia, he'd picked up skills he simply never could have learned by staying in New York: Aboriginal ritual killings hardly ever happened there.
Perhaps it's also worth repeating the author's note:
This is a work of fiction.
There is a real place named Utopia, it's situated in the red-desert centre of Australia. This story is not about that place, nor is it about any real people. I found the irony irrisistable: imagine naming a place called Utopia, a place so impoverished, so desolate.