Book Review – Red Can Origami

By Michael Barker

I was really intrigued to read Madelaine Dickie’s latest novel, Red Can Origami – just published by Fremantle Press in time for Christmas – as soon as it arrived on my desk.
The reason was that the words in the title – ‘Red Can’, suggesting what is sometimes to be found in Australia’s outback, and ‘Origami’, a Japanese paper art – and the blurb on the back cover, suggested to me a plot line involving an unusual confluence of the cultures of mainstream Australia, Aboriginal Australia, and Japan.
Very little has been written in fictional form, until very recent times, about such a confluence of cultures, and especially the weaving together of Indigenous culture and the wider mainstream Australian culture.
Having said that, Carpentaria by Xavier Herbert (1938), a non indigenous writer, partially gives the lie – although it was pathfinding in its day and remained exceptional for a long time.
And the recent prize winning novel, Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko (2018) shows how Indigenous writers are now moving fast into this field.
One reason for reticence, from a non-Indigenous writer’s point of view, I suspect, for not entering this field, is that not many non-Indigenous writers have the experience, or the insights, or the confidence to do so. It has minefields everywhere, not the least being that bearing the warning of cultural appropriation. Can a gardiya write about Blackfellas and other gardiyas- Whitefellas – in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, for example? Is that permitted?
Well, of course it is. But as a writer, you need to know what you’re doing, where you can go, where you can’t. Offence can be easily, if unintentionally, given. Madelaine Dickie is a writer with an unerring sense of direction, knowing exactly how to negotiate this tricky terrain, where to place her feet safely, where she can go.
For all these reasons, and the fast moving plot too, I loved this book. It is actually something of a page-turner.
Dickie’s first novel,Troppo, was published to critical acclaim in 2017. It involved action in Indonesia. Western values meet Indonesian’.
In Red Can Origami, Indigenous Australian values meet those of the mainstream, and Japanese.
It is set against a native title debate about a mining proposal involving a Japanese-backed company, Gerro Blue, its Japanese executive, Watanabe, and the local Burrika people.
The action happens in a fictional town called Gubinge, which feels a lot like Broome in the Kimberley. Given Dickie worked in that region for a significant period, I think we can safely assume it is.
The Burrika have to decide if they are willing to negotiate an agreement to facilitate the mine. A ‘Yes’ vote might mean the community coffers will be filled, but would that be a good thing for culture?
Noah, a charismatic guy, is the main man for the Burrika. But in his community, as important as he is, his word is not the only one likely to sway the community. He has an ex-wife, Katherine. But how ‘ex’ is she? And what drives her?
Noah also has a feisty sister, Lucia, who works at the local paper.
As does a gardiya journalist, Ava, who has turned up from down south and becomes involved, in everything, with everyone; including the white, ‘expat’ community of gardiyas in Gubinge.
Imogen, Ava’s Melbourne-based sister, provides some outside world ‘reality’ check on where Ava is at at crucial times.
As does Mandy, the flak for Gerro Blue. The mining company wants to enlist Ava to push the native title negotiations to a successful conclusion. Will Ava sup with the devil? But is it the devil?
And there is, of course, a real baddy in all of this, The White Namibian, de Beere! He doesn’t like people with native title rights coming anywhere near his land. Why? And is he all that bad?
There is also a massacre site at Lalinjurra, in the vicinity of the mine site, that muddies the waters.
The scenarios painted by Dickie in this novel are only too real.
You must read this book, obviously, to find out what happens in the end. You will be entertained, you will laugh, and your emotions will be affected. And the plot moves along. As I say, it’s something of a page-turner.
But really good novels also inform and leave you thinking. And this novel does that too. You learn by living through Ava’s experiences: all her high moments, and the low ones too.

So, let me conclude with a couple of final, cryptic notes I made about Red Can Origami as soon as I finished reading the book –

*So well written.
*Evokes the Kimberley so well.
*Gets Indigenous groups and their dynamics.
*Understands the limits of native title.
*So accurately portrays the pressures on people like Noah.
*Respects Aboriginal culture.
*Has a fascinating side line on sex and the single woman.
*Racially blind in so many ways.
*A really good plot.
This is a wonderful second novel. Share it around, once you’ve read it. Better still, buy your friends and family a copy for Christmas! You and they won’t be disappointed. You’ll rightly feel you have learned new insights on the dynamics of native title.
Recently we spoke to Madelaine Dickie about her craft, and this book, listen here. She’s a very interesting person and writer.