The Oldest Song in the World

Sue Woolfe

The Oldest Song in the World
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The Oldest Song in the World

Sue Woolfe

Kate, a lonely city woman and reluctant student, is asked by her teachers to travel to the middle of the Australian desert to record a dying Aboriginal woman singing an ancient song. She accepts because she believes that she might be able to reunite with a childhood love and solve the mystery of her past. But once there, she’s confronted by an Aboriginal culture vastly different to her own, and also by the forceful personality of the man who is supposed to help her find the singer. Very soon she is questioning everything she has ever felt about her own country and about her childhood. Sensitively portrayed, lyrical, and full of insights about people’s diverse sense of home, belonging and family, The Oldest Song in the World is a brave and controversial story about discovering the power of one’s own voice and taking heed of the voice of others.

Review

sue_woolfe_2Kate is a linguistics student from Sydney and she is asked by her lecturer to travel to a remote Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory to record the song of a dying old woman.

The language spoken in this community is endangered and the song is believed to be from the Dreaming so there is evidence that there may be ancient grammar preserved within it ‘like an extinct butterfly preserved in amber’.

The pretext of Kate’s selection for the trip is pretty implausible; she is one of the worst students academically but the lecturer has seen something unique in her and has chosen Kate in the hope that she will fulfil the lifelong dream of a teacher to change the life of a student. There’s a fair bit of implausibility to get around in this novel and there is much speculation that the invitation from the community to record the song has coincidentally come from someone from Kate’s lonely and tragic childhood.

I didn’t feel there was much original insight in this novel and the landscape felt incompletely imagined. Kate is an odd character, her motivations were often a mystery and some of the periphery characters were dangerously one dimensional.

Thankfully the novel is somewhat redeemed by an ending that is not predictable and in the last moments the story comes together and has something worthwhile to say about the importance of language and a sense of belonging.

The Oldest Song in the World is out now in paperback ($24.95) and ebook ($14.99).


Kara Nicholson is from Readings Carlton.

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