Review: Sweet One

9781922089755_SWEETONE_WEBSweet One is a powerful novel that depicts white Australia’s conflict with black Australia as a frontier war that has never ended, at the same time daring to imagine a day when it might.

Set in the Western Australian goldfields, the story opens with the horrendous, entirely preventable death of a elderly Aboriginal war veteran in custody. Directly complicit in his death are the local state police and the private security officers responsible for prisoner transport. But when the army trained ‘Sweet One’, a man of Wongatha and Afghani descent, starts avenging the Old Man’s death, the lines of responsibility are drawn in wider and wider arcs, raising questions about where complicity ends when it comes to maintaining a status quo that subjects Indigenous Australians to violence, poverty and early death.

Investigating the intersecting stories of systemic injustice and frontier justice is journalist Izzy Langford, daughter of a Vietnam veteran turned cop, girlfriend of an Australian solider on active duty in Afghanistan. Izzy has investigated an Aboriginal death in custody once before, only to have her story killed when the accused cop was acquitted. This same cop subsequently becomes first to die in Sweet One’s campaign.

Izzy was previously embedded with forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the more she learns of black-white relations in outback Australia, the more parallels she sees between the two. ‘It feels like a war. To us it even looks like a war,’ Sweet One tells her.

The young Aboriginal girls being sold for sex by a hotel owner who acts as loan shark to their families reminds Izzy of the teenage girls she saw trafficked as part of the opium industry in the Middle East:

The First World isn’t that different to the Third World. Everything looks different, more opulent — everything except the look in the eye of those who are helpless to resist the power. That look in the eye is the same the world over. A look that Westerners have trained themselves not to see. (p.57)

In the largely corrupt and highly stratified outback towns where Izzy finds herself, no one  can be trusted on face value. When she manages to evade the cops — or are they military? — who would silence her, Izzy is taken in by Queenie and her Aboriginal mob. But Queenie, too, is not what she seems, sharing an elusive connection with Izzy, Sweet One and, it seems, most of the major players in this engrossing drama.

In Sweet One, author Peter Docker looks into the heart of white Australia and finds it conflicted, festering, lacking love for black Australia, and at the same time needing to find that love — ‘to start really looking for our blackness, for our Australian-ness’, as he puts it in the excellent book club notes available from Freemantle Press.

The novel contains numerous statements that read like epiphanies, and yet the combination of intimate characterisations and humour, together with the thriller format, help ensure that none of it comes across as didactic. In one scene, for example, Izzy visits Sweet One’s brother-in-arms, Smokey, at a Perth prison. In the course of their conversation, Izzy mentions Ned Kelly’s famous Jerilderie letter, which sets Smokey off on a story he offers to dictate ‘like Ned’s letter to Joe’.

Smokey speaks of a people thrown up by an ancient country, a people ‘who recognise the country and its indivisibleness from its phenomenal spiritual life’, who ‘survive everything’.

And then, two hundred years ago — we show up. No country, no real Law, swamped in grog, full of greed, and armed to the fucking back teeth. We came here looking for something. Something we lost along the way. But when we found what we were looking for, we were so angry with ourselves that we attacked and destroyed the thing that we came seeking. It makes no diff. In two hundred years we have done our best to besmirch them, belittle them, butcher them, and back them into a corner every which way but loose.
Can you still use besmirch? asks Izzy, daring to look up.
Ned would’ve. (p. 177)

Sweet One is an audacious novel, a hard-boiled read that is both gripping and provocative. It’s the sort of book that should stimulate reflection, discussion, questions and — dare we hope — action.

Sweet One by Peter Docker (2014) is published by Freemantle Press.

Listen to my review of Sweet One on Radio National Books and Arts Daily here.


About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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24 Responses to Review: Sweet One

  1. Andrew Nette says:

    Great review, Angela. I’ll definitely be checking it out.


  2. spongedoll says:

    Great review very inspired to get a copy have you read his other novel ” the waterboys” ? Reading this review remind me of a very important question for contemporary Australia posed by author Alice Walker in an interview on RN recently which was (along the lines of ) … ” can the perpetrators of invasion, dispossesion and subjugation of original /indigenous peoples and land (or their descendants) ever really appreciate or truly understand the situation of the victims of colonial expansionism ? “


    • angelasavage says:

      A great question from a great woman. I think many of us writers grapple with who we can or can’t/should or shouldn’t write about. Docker is daring as a non-Aboriginal author in writing Aboriginal characters, though I hear he has good credentials. Perhaps this issue will come up when I review this book for Radio National on 25 June…


  3. bec juniper says:

    Great Review…I loved ‘Dockers’ “someone else’s country” and look forward to reading his new book..


  4. Gez's 2bob says:

    Looking forward to that program on RN thanks for the heads-up.
    I would second Bec’s opinion of ‘Someone else’s Country’ as well and humbly but enthusiastically suggest it may be insightful for you with regards to where the Authors ‘daring’ as a ‘white fella ‘ had its roots. Not a work of fiction like these novels, perhaps best summarised here by Rolf De Beers words on the cover of my copy “An extraordinary achievement , as both literature and cultural analysis . reading this is a privilege …rarely have I been so moved””
    Just finished watching “utopia” on SBS earlier this evening, Alice Walkers words and the the words from ‘Sweet One ‘ you shared in your review..” The look that Westerners have trained themselves not to see”(page57).
    This for mine is an author who is exploring important contemporary issues .


  5. kathy d. says:

    Alice Walker raises a very important question, which is crucial for all those who write or speak about this type of oppression but who have not been oppressed nor their ancestors.
    I thought that Nicole Watson did a great job of exposing what colonial and contemporary oppression has done to the Indigenous of Australia, but she is a member of that community.
    It is always a question.
    I think Adrian Hyland did a good job in his books about Emily Tempest, for one, but what do members of Australia’s Indigenous communities think about his books?
    That is crucial. How is Docker’s book seen by the peoples he is writing about. I would say that’s the main question at hand.
    A friend of mine who is African American has said that while there are many anti-racist and sympathetic white people in the States, no one who isn’t Black knows what it feels like to grow up with and every day face racism and discrimination all around.
    That’s really important.


    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for your comments, Kathy. I think the question of how books are received by the communities they depict is vital — noting that there is no one ‘Aboriginal community’ in Australia any more than (I imagine) there is a single ‘black (or African-American) community’ in the USA. I think Adrian Hyland’s books are well-received by some Indigenous readers, challenged by others.

      Certainly as a white Australian writer of fiction (whose books are set in Thailand), I would hate to have to limit myself to writing about people like me. At the same time, I don’t want to cause offence by depicting characters from diverse cultures as stereotypes or, equally, by romanticising them.

      I think writers must do the best they can and put their work ‘out there’, prepared to be challenged and to learn in that process.


  6. Gez's 2bob says:

    KathyD I’m hoping to enjoy Hyland & Watson when possible cheers .
    Hmmm.. Pemmellwy (sp) in NSW and in the West .. Yagan, Jandammarra resistance stories are out there. “Kadaitcha Man” by “Sam Watson QLD comes to mind .
    “Whiteman’s got no dreaming” or the Boyer lectures of WE Stannard to “the whispering in our hearts” of Henry Reynolds “the greatest estate on earth ” Bill Gammage writers who are tackling these issues are few and far between in writing, filmmaking and theatre have perhaps a better engagement with these issues in recent times.
    In regard to the important observations in both your of your recent posts, I was fortunate enough to be in the audience of a panel of writers at a regional writers festival in regional SW West Aust of which Docker was a featured writer, and when posed similar questions replied that(mpy words), ” I’m telling my stories and writing and something along the lines of this book ( The Waterboys) is a work of fiction but if I told you what is the reality and truth of what is really happening, you would be forgiven for thinking that was fiction!!”


    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks Gez. Some great references there to follow up. Would have been great to hear Peter Docker talk about his work.
      I suspect (though I don’t know for sure) that non-Aboriginal writers shy away from engaging with those Aboriginal resistance stories you mention out of respect for the right of Aboriginal people to ‘own’ them — not because they aren’t great stories.


  7. kathy d. says:

    Yes. I am aware that there are many Indigenous communities and language groups in Australia.
    Authors over here who are writing about people of color communities often show their writings to other writers who are members of those communities to get their reactions and input.


    • angelasavage says:

      I think authors here do likewise, Kathy. I’ve certainly talked through stuff in my books with Thai friends. I believe that consultation can be helpful in the drive to write accurately, respectfully and — to use Edward Said’s word — ‘contrapuntally’ about another culture. But that said, I don’t expect my Thai friends to be representative of all Thai people, any more than my opinions could be said to be representative of all Australians. There’s always a risk Thai readers could take offence at what I write. My attitude is that if I’m going to write what I do and put it out there, I have to be prepared to stand corrected.


  8. Jane cUnningham says:

    Great review Angela. And the comment thread stimulating. This Jeannie Herbert review of Someone Else’s is a critique of Docker’s work from an indigenous perspective.
    A bit of the magic of Sweet One for me is its ability to make me laugh out loud in the middle of a war zone. Thanks for the RN heads up Angela. Will definitely tune in.


    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for that, Jane. I enjoyed Jeannie Herbert’s review of Someone Else’s Country.

      And I agree with you about the magic of the humour in Sweet One. I admire writers who can capture humour in the middle of a war zone. Adrian McKinty does it brilliantly, too, in his Sean Duffy novels set in 1980s Northern Ireland. Humour shakes a fist in the face of repression and despair.


      • Gez's 2bob says:

        Enjoying the chat thanks all, Angela, Yup great list, I have read novels (whose names I can’t recall now ) about both Pemmullewey and Yagan both from a blackfella resistance perspective but can illuminate a couple of references in relation I to Jandamarra .
        “Outlaws of the Leapolds” by Ion Idress was published in 1952. The protecting and defending his home and people Jandamarra is substituted with a murdering heathen outlaw wandering the Kimberley upsetting the nice white settlers and their kin , wrapped in all the suggestive ‘lust in the dust’ you would expect,when it was published the stolen generation was in full swing and people were still classified as flora and fauna for another 15 yrs, but I digress….
        “Jandamarra and the Bunuba resistance” (1995 Magaba books) by Howard Petersen & Banjo Worrunmurra is another prospect all together.
        Mr Worrunmurra (d:2003) was the Bunuba Elder And traditional custodian of this story. Howard Petersen met Mr Wooorunmurra when travelling in the late 70’s in the Kimberley , wrote an honours thesis on the subject in the 1980’s and who writes in the preface of the 4th edition published in 2011 that” This book does not pretend to be written from an Aboriginal perspective. That task awaits the creativity and insight of Aboriginal writers.However the Bunuba oral testimonies were fundamentally important to a story that draws primarily on information contained within reports, diaries and journals written by the invaders. These written sources can not be and have not been taken at face value. Interpreting them as sources of historical explination would have been impossible without the Bunuba oral history “


        • angelasavage says:

          Wow, Jandamarra and the Bunuba resistance sounds like a must-read, Gez. Thanks for this.


          • Gez's 2bob says:

            Angela if it’s not too much trouble are you able to post here a link to the broadcast on RN and date & time …? I have some friends who would be interested in listening to this and I’d like to be sure I was sending them to the right place etc.


          • angelasavage says:

            The link to the Radio National Books & Arts Daily program is here, Gez:


            The live version is scheduled for Wed 25 June and they usually put me on around 10.30 or 10.45am.

            For those who miss it, RN puts podcasts up on their site and I will certainly post a link to the podcast once it’s available.

            FYI, podcasts of all the on-air reviews I do for RN Books & Arts Daily can be found on the ‘About Angela’ page of this blog.

            Be sure to let your friends know they will be able to share their opinions of Docker’s book, too, on the RN website.


  9. kathy d. says:

    Your plan sounds like a good one for a writer.
    Very interesting discussion here, sending me to check more links.


  10. Jane Cunningham says:

    Howard Pedersens Jandamarra thesis is a great work. It has been adapted for stage and written as a cantata being performed with the Gondwana Choir and the Sydney Philharmonic at the Opera House next month. Peter Docker is playing Richardson. Thank you for the RN link Angela. Will most definitely tune in.


  11. Pingback: Top 10 Crime Reads 2014 | Angela Savage

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