Capricornia opens with a brief chapter that describes the bloody arrival of the white man in “Capricornia,” Xavier Herbert’s fictionalized version of Australia’s Northern Territory. It serves to establish the themes of the whites’ rapacity and their destruction of aboriginal culture.
Thereafter, the first portion of the novel chronicles the fortunes of the Shillingsworth brothers, who arrive in Port Zodiac, Capricornia’s principal city, in 1904 and take up positions in the civil service. Oscar soon rises in Capricornian society, getting married and then becoming the owner of Red Ochre, a large cattle station. Mark, on the other hand, is dismissed for drunkenness and mean behavior. He fathers a son, Norman, by an aboriginal woman and leaves him for the natives to rear, only recognizing his worth when a grazier offers to rear him as a worker on his station. The child, called Nawnim, or “no-name,” by the aborigines, escapes and comes to live with Oscar at Red Ochre. After killing a Chinese merchant, Mark flees the country, and Oscar finally decides to rear Norman. Since he cannot do so in raceconscious Capricornia, where everyone knows Norman’s identity, he moves his family south.
In this first section, Xavier Herbert begins to show the panorama of life in Capricornia, a place of violence, dissipation, and greed. The plot develops episodically as the author comments on the effects of the coming of the white race in the north.
In the next section, the focus shifts to the stories of Constance Differ and Tim O’Cannon. The daughter of a white man and a black woman, Constance is reared by her father to be above the usual low station of half-castes in Capricornian society. After her father’s death, she is taken in by Humbolt Lace, who takes advantage of her and then, discovering she is pregnant, abandons her. Later, Tim O’Cannon finds her with her baby daughter in an aboriginal camp. When Constance dies, O’Cannon adopts the child, whom he names Tocky, and rears her along with his own mixed-race daughters. Later, he is killed in a railway accident, and Tocky ends up in the aboriginal compound; as usually happens in Capricornia, a deed done for humane ends turns out to be futile.
The focus for the rest of the novel is on the fortunes of Norman. He returns to Capricornia to visit Oscar, who has resumed management of Red Ochre. The major events of this section concern Norman’s discovery of his identity (Oscar has told him that he is part Javanese) and his having to come to terms with his aboriginal ancestry. The section also includes Oscar’s death, Tocky’s escape from the Gospelist mission where she has been sent, her subsequent liaison with Norman, and several spectacular murder trials. Through great expense and the exertions of the lawyer Caeser Bightit, Mark is acquitted of the murder of the merchant, and Norman of the murder of Frank McLash (whom Tocky has killed). At the end of the novel, Mark is married and looking forward to prosperity, and Norman is in charge of Red Ochre. Herbert closes the action, however, on a more somber note, with Norman discovering the bones of Tocky and her baby, who have perished while hiding from the police.
Clancy, Laurie. Xavier Herbert, 1981.
Heseltine, Harry. Xavier Herbert, 1973.