Sue Woolfe is an award-winning novelist who teaches creative writing at Sydney University, so you can safely assume she knows a thing or two about structure.
The Oldest Song in the World centres on Kate, a single Sydney woman in her 30s who is a self-confessed appeaser and a loner who works in a bookshop until she is inspired by a university professor to study linguistics - but not for the love of language, for the approval of the professor.
Languishing at the bottom of the class she is chosen to go to central Australia to record the song of an old Djemiranga woman, who is dying and whose name she does not know.
The man who is to meet her is possibly Kate's childhood friend and crush, whom she befriended because he was the son of her father's mistress and who ran away around the time of a not-quite-spelled-out family tragedy.
The best parts of this book are when Woolfe depicts the attitude of white Australia to Aboriginal people: every single white person thinks they know what is best and has no sense of their own paternalistic attitude - merely criticising others. She spent a couple of years in the desert and clearly has a keen eye for hypocrisy and power within relationships.
The landscapes are beautifully depicted and emotively drawn but the novel disappoints in just about every other way.
Plot holes and tenuous links from the start (while things may have changed in the 20 years since I dropped out of uni, I bet they still don't send struggling first year students to the desert on their own to do important research on endangered languages) could be forgiven if the novel was strong enough in other ways - but it's not.
Kate is so irritating and wet I wanted to take her out of the pages and shake some backbone into her; the romance is so surface you wonder why she bothered and the back story is hinted at and hinted at but when it's finally revealed the climax fails to excite.
The most illumining part of this book was in the acknowledgements, where Woolfe explains the manuscript was a 'collection of sense impressions' until she mused "What if my heroine is sent to a remote community to record an ancient song known by only one old woman who's on her deathbed - and my heroine can't find her?"
And that's exactly how it reads: one idea with a bunch of creative writing exercises around it. Maybe that's considered highbrow or literary but I just found it contrived and disappointing because it is an interesting idea - it just needed a better sense of story.
All books reviewed are available from The Book Warehouse in Lismore.
Title: The Oldest Song in the World
Author: Sue Woolfe
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