Alice Spring by Eleanor Hogan
This handsome book is the latest addition to New South’s justly successful series about Australian cities, focusing this time on the capital of ‘Centralia’, Alice Springs. Countless readers have relished the nostalgia invoked by these literary love letters, but Hogan’s account will offer a very different reading experience. Don’t expect a feel-good travelogue here.
While there are plenty of elegant descriptions of majestic landscapes, this excursion to Australia’s desert heart is also a challenging journey that should raise a lot of questions – and considerable discomfort – for people living in the affluent, urban enclaves of the previous books in the series. How a ‘Springian’ might read this book is another matter entirely.
Hogan’s uncompromising narrative is based on her experience living in Alice Springs between 2005 and 2010 to work as a policy officer in Aboriginal services. Looming large is a disparate population. Some residents are non-Indigenous expats from capital cities who have relocated to ‘make a difference’ as part of the town’s welfare economy. Others are the Aboriginal recipients of this welfare, many of whom Hogan shows to be living in serious disadvantage born from dispossession, and made even more difficult by seemingly unending cycles of alcohol, violence, poverty, bureaucracy and exploitation.
These depictions are not based on idle impressions, but are supported by a public servant’s eye for statistics and policy documents and a journalist’s skill in interviewing prominent community members. Lives led in this place of extremes are difficult, but are cross-cut with the pleasures of community that exist in regional centres, and the importance of sport, art, friendship, family and culture.
A tough portrait of life in a beautiful but harsh landscape of contradictions, Alice Springs is as much a series of general questions about living ethically as it is Hogan’s memoir of being an outsider looking in.
Alison Huber is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.