Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Alan Garners Strandloper tells the tale of William Buckley, an eighteenth century Cheshireman who was sentenced to transportation to Australia. Buckleys crimes were taking part in an ancient fertility rite, but also for running afoul of the local lord, John Stanley. Buckley manages to escape from the prison colony and make his way in the Outback, where he manages to befriend the Aborigines.
Buckley actually did exist, and Garners book appears to stick pretty close to the known facts. However, little is known of the thirty years he spent among the Aborigines or the specifics of what he learned among them. This allowed Garner a free had to describe his spiritual growth within the framework of his known history.
While Garners sparse descriptions are lyrical and convey the period, his dialogue may cause many readers difficulties. Garners characters speak in the dense dialects of rural England which are frequently difficult to understand, especially when the words appear to be gibberish. Furthermore, the characters often do not appear to be speaking to each other, but rather voicing their own, incomprehensible thoughts. If the novel relied more heavily on descriptive and narrative prose, this wouldnt be a problem, however, Garner focuses much of his effort in attempting to recreate the rustic cadences of the eighteenth century.
Once Buckley is committed to transport and placed on a ship to Australia, the novel picks up. Although the dialogue on the ship is still difficult to follow, Garner manages to create several distinct characters who are en route to their destiny, ranging from the educated Jeremiah to the opportunist Renter. Buckley practically disappears in this company, which only heightens the effects the Outback has on him later in the novel.
The novel is broken into five sections, each one detailing a different portion of Buckleys life. Although Buckley always manages to retain the innocence which characterizes his early life in England, by the end of the novel, it is overlaid with the wisdom which he acquired during his time among the Aborigines. This spiritual knowledge came about as the result of Buckley's ability to take part in Aboriginal Dreaming, although at times it is unclear what Buckley is Dreaming and what is actually a remembrance of his fading memories of his homeland.
While Garner does some interesting things with his source material, the language, particularly the dialogue, makes it difficult at times to figure out what is happening. While he is quite good at portraying the period in which Buckley lived, Garner chooses to do so at the expense of the novel's readability.
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