Book Review: A Mouthful of Flies

Review by Anne Myers


A Mouthful of Flies

By Sue Currie

293 pages, Lyncon

A Mouthful of Flies cover Sue Currie

There’s an airstrip four kilometres out of Camel Bore.* Nothing fancy.  A levelled clearing in the bush, green spinifex at its edges, hazy purple mountains in the distance. No one goes there outside of planes arriving and departing. Off to one side in a dusty Troopie sits a nurse. She knows no planes are due. That’s why she’s sitting there. It’s the perfect solitude in a world where for now she has given up many things; days off, privacy, sleep, her sense of humour, sense of self, and increasingly, her sanity.

It is 1993. Sue Currie has accepted a position as a Remote Area Nurse in Camel Bore, an Aboriginal Community in the Western Desert, somewhere between Alice Springs and Kalgoorlie. It is a single nurse post. She has worked as a Remote Area Nurse in the 1960s, and is keen to go bush again. This time she intends to journal her experience, keeping a record of the fond memories she will no doubt collect. It is fortunate for her and us that she did. A Mouthful of Flies is the result.

“The writing of this story was technically easy but emotionally difficult,” writes Currie. There’s a sense straight up that the word ‘fond’ is not going to register much. Dread comes to mind. All the signs are there. The previous nurse has left in a hurry, a victim of overt bullying by the Community Advisor. The Health Service Manager in Alice Springs getting straight down to business with do’s and don’ts – you must not leave the community (except for the airstrip), you must drive the Troopie everywhere so people will know where you are (Currie loves walking), pets are not encouraged – “the kids [will] break your chook’s legs and the camp dogs will eat your kitten.” As for dress code and behaviour, Currie learns of the rape of a nurse in the bedroom of the house she is soon to occupy – “she brought it on herself,” says the manager, “jogging round the community in shorts and singlet top.” It is too late for Currie, her old job has been filled.

Before long, Currie has immersed herself in the day-to-day running of the health clinic. An overwhelmingly exhaustive undertaking, and with the Aboriginal Health Workers frequently having other commitments, she is often on her own. Despite this, she enjoys getting to know the Aboriginal people. Who will require what and when. How to encourage the mothers to wash their babies in the clinic (many of the homes have inadequate washing facilities). How to talk to a fifteen year old boy about his sexually transmitted infection. How to stop the baby camel sitting on Mr Jackson’s mattress when he needs it more. How to get Nancy, infected with scabies, to take her clothes off first before soaping herself in the bath. Currie soon discovers the clinic is a gathering place, with a phone that works, and a cool place on a hot day.

There are ten white staff in the community, all their houses clustered together. There exists a kind of stunted collegiality, all struggling in their own ways. It is the Community Advisor, a middle-aged white male, who Currie comes to fear. His intimidation, threats, silence. And his charm. Many Aboriginal people have left the community because of him. His behaviour consumes Currie’s thoughts – trying to understand him, hoping he will leave, strategizing to be one step ahead. It is exhausting, distracting her from the people she has come to care for.

Her sleep is the first to go. Waking early, mind racing. Being constantly available is taking its toll – anticipating that knock on the door in the middle of the night. Always being ‘on.’ Each day begins with less and less in reserve, her resolve weakening. There is not enough of her to go round. She retreats into football matches, her veggie garden, last week’s newspapers open on the bed, Cheezels in one hand, Coke in the other. The smallest of pleasures grabbed here and there.

There are many small successes along the way. Some of the Aboriginal women ask her to go hunting, the kid’s school showering programme, eye clinics showing low levels of trachoma. On these days she feels herself falling in love with the place. Her favourite time of day is walking around the camp at dusk, kids kicking the football, mothers cooking dinner over small fires, puppies playing, baby camels wandering about. “It’s magic.”

“I have shut down,” she writes, “I’ve learnt not to need anything or anyone now.” The kitten she wanted has arrived, only she’s too tired to give it the attention it needs. She has nothing more to give.

Now physically unwell – tight chest, tension headaches, jittery, shaky, ‘all choked up.’ The threat of violence, fears for her own personal safety, harassment and intimidation are now daily occurrences, as though this small part of Australia has broken off from the rest and is drifting alone, unrecognizable to itself.

It is painful reading at times. Yet compelling. Watching a strong-willed capable woman mentally unravel. Wanting to protect her, yet intrigued to see how far she will go being pushed to her limit. Some days it felt her writing was the only freedom she had – “[the journal] has been my burden and my salvation.” Leave, just leave, I’d whisper to her through the pages, wanting to reach in and hug her, wanting to tell her what a fabulous job she was doing. It seemed the longer she remained in the desert the further she would travel into this heart of darkness, the heat and sunshine fooling no one.

In the end Currie knew what she had to do. The internal struggle was killing her – wanting to stay for the affection she had developed for these Aboriginal people and the need to leave to save herself from a ‘slow suicide,’ of becoming as brutal as the conditions she was living under, of acting in ways unthinkable in any other circumstance. While the ending is extremely sad, it felt inevitable.

For me, there was good reason to read this book. I’m soon to follow in Currie’s footsteps, heading bush in a month or so. To be honest, this wasn’t the read I expected or wanted. I guess it was the same for Currie all those years ago. I want fond memories. I want it to be a positive experience. Some days, I feel uncertain and afraid, wondering why I’m putting myself through this. Yet there’s something about getting back to the basics of why you do what you do in the first place. How will you go placed in a community where you are the minority, where the health of the Aboriginal people will challenge you every day, where there may be no internet or mobile phone coverage, where the isolation may be too huge for you to bear, where you will see diseases hardly seen in the white population, where people will die because of lack of resources that you take for granted. It hit home for me last week when I was in Alice Springs doing a remote emergency course. A nurse, already working remote, asked casually – “So, for a hanging, to get them down, do you insert the hook from above or below?” This is going to be hard. I will be exposed for the urban nurse that I am. I have many lessons to learn. Upon reflection A Mouthful of Flies was exactly the read I needed.

It’s twenty years since that trip to Camel Bore. I’d like to think things have changed. The Council of Remote Area Nurses of Australia (CRANA), established eleven years prior to this story, came together for all the reasons Currie wrote about. The challenges confronting nurses working in remote areas were relatively unknown and poorly understood and over the years CRANA has made inroads into improving conditions for nurses through advocacy, education and support. Thankfully, many single nurse posts have been phased out.

Currie was brave in writing her story in all its ugliness and beauty. “The mind of man is capable of anything,” writes Joseph Conrad, “because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage – who can tell? – but truth – truth stripped of its cloak of time.” In telling the truth, giving her experience a voice, I hope Currie is less haunted by her time spent in the Western Desert with “the gentle people” of Camel Bore.


*author has changed places and names.

To buy a copy of A Mouthful of Flies contact the author [email protected]



  1. Thank you Anne and Sue. I found it very affecting to read the review, and I look forward to reading Sue’s book.
    I was working in health policy at the time of Sue’s remote area nursing, and to some degree we are all of us negligent and complicit in allowing carers and communities to suffer and be abused.
    I felt the same way about the child sexual abuse royal commission. I knew of incidents from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s where it had been investigated and dealt with appropriately. I thought I was informed, but I have been shocked at how recently the and profoundly such abuse has continued. I had thought that institutions decided 20+ years ago to address allegations head on and take the side of the abused over the perpetrators and organisational wealth and reputation.
    I was naïve and wrong.
    We need to keep telling stories like Sue’s until it can be filed under history rather than current affairs.
    Best wishes with your important and challenging work, Anne.

  2. Peter Flynn says

    I agree with Martin Flanagan in his review.

    These stories need to be told.

    His and Anne’s excellent review complement each other.

    Well done Sue and Anne.


  3. Compelling stuff Annie. Good luck to you out there in the wonderland.

  4. Neil Anderson says

    Discussed Martin Flanagan’s review of ‘A Mouthful Of Flies’ over the dinner-table recently which made us feel just how cosseted we are down here in the south.
    The petrol price-hike and the toner cartridge out of stock suddenly didn’t seem so important.
    If ever there was good examples of ‘first-world’ problems for us, these were the ones.
    In the meantime, the ‘Australian’ third-world problems continue in the outback and we rely on the courage of Anne and Sue to report on them from the front- line.
    You can only hope people in authority will read the book and not just the Almanackers.

  5. DBalassone says

    I sit next to Sue Currie at Collingwood’s Etihad home games. Amazingly about 3 years ago we discovered that we both write for the Footy Almanac – a freakish coincidence. Mathematicians, Peter Flynn, what would be the odds off that? About 10 in 80,000?
    Anyway, not only is Sue a great conversationalist, and a great Collingwood person, she is also a great writer. I dived into her book on the weekend and cannot put it down. A brutally honest, and disturbing account of Sue’s experiences as a remote area nurse “somewhere in Australia”. I thoroughly recommend it. As Martin and Anne have stated, these stories need to be told.

  6. It’s truly heartwarming to hear of and read the works of Sue (and yourself Damian) who buck the unfair Collingwood supporter generalisations.

  7. Bravo Anne and Sue. Confronting book. Confronting review. Both have voice. Thanks Anne.

  8. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Have won me will go looking for a copy on the week end
    All the best Sue looking forward to reading the book !

  9. Dear Anne,

    Thank you for your stunning review. You didn’t miss a beat. You must have put many hours into writing it and I’m humbled by the generosity of your gift of time. My sincere best wishes for the life-changing adventure you are about to undertake.


  10. Anne Myers says

    Thanks everyone for your kind comments.

    Thank you for your kind words. I enjoyed writing it. Maybe when I have some stories of my own (or not) we can catch up for a coffee.

  11. Anne,
    Let’s not wait till you’ve written your stories.

    When can you meet for that coffee?


  12. Jennifer Cramer says

    Sue’s fine book is a real account. Sue exposes a dark side of life for a remote area nurse – and gives an insight into the hidden costs of mismanagement in remote Aboriginal communities. Her experience is not unusual and the questions it raises should not be ignored.

    Anne, equipped with insights from Sue’s book, I look forward to your observations.

  13. Anne Myers says

    Thanks Jennifer.

    It was great to meet with Sue this week. She spoke very highly of you and your writing.


  14. Paul Daffey says

    Wonderful review, Annie. Strong and compelling.

    I headed north as a gormless 22-year-old, and enjoyed it, but I would struggle to do so now for the reasons you mention. It’d be confronting but, you’d hope, ultimately rewarding.

    I look forward to further writings.


  15. Michele Davis says

    As a new reader to the Footy Almanac, this review is not what I expected! But I feel compelled to read it. Well done Sue.

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