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catching teller crow

27 june 2021

Some spoilers are unavoidable in discussing Catching Teller Crow by Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, so stop reading whenever you feel too much being revealed here about the novel, including right now.

I had been reading some Australian mystery novels of late, all of them by white authors. They either elide Aboriginal people, or, as in Arthur Upfield's classic Bony series, speak through and for Aboriginal people and have them say what the white author would like them to say.

However sympathetic the white writers may be, and Upfield's sympathies were considerable, it isn't quite the same as listening to Aboriginal authors themselves. So I set out deliberately to find novels by indigenous Australians. There aren't many, for various reasons. Though we might imagine publishing houses being so woke nowadays that all they print are postmodern perspectives by people of color, literature is still a very white business and hard for indigenous writers around the settler-colonial world to break into.

And the conventions of Western prose fiction themselves may not align with indigenous values and aesthetics. I found Catching Teller Crow fascinating because it tries to align the mystery novel – a true detective story where there is a problem with a solution – and a dreamlike Aboriginal narrative that lies not even counter to Western rationality but in different dimensions.

The three words of the title are names. Michael Teller is our detective, a white cop who shares his surname with his mixed-race daughter Beth. We learn within a page or two that Beth is dead. Only her father can see and hear her. This weird dynamic adds immediate narrative power to Catching Teller Crow. Her dad has been assigned to look into a small-town case of unexplained death. It may be an accidental fire or it may be arson and gruesome murder. In either case, having a junior sidekick who can eavesdrop, teleport, and walk through walls would be an advantage to any cop.

This is no setup for a ghostly detective series, though. Beth's dad can only see her because he cannot move on from his immediate rage at her death (a true traffic accident). And Beth cannot move on, to wherever spirits go, till she reconciles her dad to her passing. One key narrative problem is to resolve this family dynamic.

Catching is the key witness to the fire. She is a kid who apparently lived in the school for troubled kids that caught fire and knows more than the others who survived. Catching speaks her chapters in evocative, surreal free verse – well, I say surreal because it is, from a white perspective; but Catching is Aboriginal and for her, the world is more populated and on more plains than the ace white detective has dreamt on.

And Crow is … Crow. Crow surfaces as a character in Catching's narrative and takes greater shape as the story proceeds, exerting more impact on the perceptible world.

My spoilers will get vaguer now, because we're circling closer to two mysteries: who's responsible for the death in the burned school, and how that responsibility aligns with the multiple perspectives of the mixed narrative (some of its chapters narrated by Beth, others by Catching).

At one point Michael Teller offers a standard element of the detective story: a "solution" to the mystery that isn't correct, but sideshadows the real solution in a way acceptable to the various audiences he's answerable to. The intriguing innovation is that the real solution is, in white-Australian terms, quite insane. But then the circumstances of white settlement in Australia must seem pretty insane to Aborigines.

Upfield comes to mind again, or at least the one Bony novel I've read, The Bone Is Pointed. There, a mystery has a prosaic solution, and there too a parallel universe wished into reality by the local indigenous people looms over and against. There too, the detective constructs a narrative that will satisfy both audiences. What makes Catching Teller Crow so original is that the "real" solution is not prosaic.

Westerners sometimes call such non-prosaic stories Romantic or magical-realist; sometimes they're relegated to fantasy. Catching Teller Crow is none of the above. It is about a real event in the terms of one culture that is incommensurable with the epistemology of another culture. That's a very thought-provoking take on the detective novel.

Catching Teller Crow is marketed as Young Adult fiction, and both narrators are adolescent girls; but I sense it's one of those novels that isn't composed with younger readers in mind, but for any audience. It is not full of the usual YA themes (sex, drugs, adult responsibilities … remember that the protagonist is actually dead). It has YA-level violence – here's a spoiler, the death was no accident and is the first in a series of grisly murders – but it's crime-scene violence of the kind you'd find in any adult mystery novel. This is a terrific book and augurs well for future work from the Kwaymullina brother-and-sister team.

Kwaymullina, Ambelin & Ezekiel. Catching Teller Crow. 2018. London: Penguin [Penguin Random House], 2019.