Cyclone Country: The Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature
Author: Chrystopher J. Spicer, 2020
Foreword by Stephen Torre
Publisher: McFarland and Company, North Carolina, 2020
ISBN: 9781476681566, paperback, 210 pages inc. appendices, bibliography and index
For North Queenslanders, cyclones are an ordinary, though disruptive, part of everyday life. We prepare our homes for the potential onslaught as best we can, we stock up on food and water and batteries, and settle in to wait it out. For the most part it’s all very routine, but the biggest, most destructive cyclones are embedded within our psyche, like neon signposts marking out our lived experience, both before and after a ‘big blow’. In most recent memory, the impacts of cyclones Yasi and Larry loom large for many, but even earlier cyclones — such as cyclone Althea, which devastated Townsville in December 1971 — can continue to possess a terrifying hold over those who lived through them.
Chrystopher J. Spicer’s book Cyclone Country examines the use of the cyclone as a literary device in Queensland fiction and poetry by interrogating the works of writers such as Vance Palmer, Thea Astley, Patrick White, Alexis Wright, and Susan Hawthorne (among others). Spicer’s critical readings of these works facilitate his exploration of the ‘use of the cyclone trope as a metaphor for epiphany and revelatory apocalypse’.
One of those works, Vance Palmer’s 1947 novel Cyclone — a fictionalised version of the impacts of a real cyclone that caused widespread destruction and death in Far North Queensland in 1934 — purports to be a story of conflict and emotional tension accentuated by a ‘brooding cyclone’. But beyond that, Palmer’s novel utilises the cyclone as a catalyst for change and renewal to great effect. After the cyclone comes the opportunity for rebuilding, both physically and emotionally, through the resilience that results from survival. One of the novel’s characters, in surveying the physical destruction after the cyclone has passed, describes a scene that is all too familiar to many North Queenslanders:
‘Not a leaf anywhere; hardly a standing tree. It was as if a giant scythe had swept over the timber and undergrowth that came to the water’s edge, mowing a twenty-mile swathe to the hills inland.’
Spicer notes that because Palmer had an intimate connection with the region where the novel was set (he and wife Nettie lived on Green Island for a short time), Palmer was ‘aware of the power of cyclones to change people’s lives physically and spiritually.’ Indeed, Palmer lost a friend to the 1934 cyclone, and Spicer argues that Palmer ‘sought in his imagination to understand and cope with the challenges of a North Queensland place that now included memories of catastrophe and chaos, along with those of paradise and peace.’
But quite apart from his finely nuanced discussion of such canonical works of Australian literature, Spicer’s chapter ‘The Naming of the Disaster’ is, in itself, a fascinating look at the history of naming cyclones and other destructive storms. He writes that ‘naming cyclones is an important aspect of how we perceive and conceptualize them in our minds’. By naming a cyclone, we are distinguishing it from other destructive weather events, so that ‘it becomes an individual entity in our imagination’. And Spicer suggests that ultimately, by naming cyclones, we are attempting to reduce such large-scale weather events that threaten to engulf us in chaos, to a more human scale, and potentially into something that we might have some control over.
A cultural historian and adjunct senior research fellow at James Cook University, North Queensland, Spicer has written books on Australian cultural history and the American film industry.
The book has been meticulously referenced and includes a comprehensive index. There are also two appendices that list literary works featuring cyclones that are either written and/or set in Queensland, and international literary works that feature cyclonic storms.
There is much to recommend about Cyclone Country. It’s a thought-provoking, sophisticated, and highly complex book that lovers of Australian literature, in particular, will find engrossing.
 Vance Palmer, Cyclone, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1947, p. 181.