Kevin Rabalais THE LANDSCAPE OF DESIRE

2008, 280 p.

As a newcomer, you’d have to be pretty brave to write a fiction book about one of another country’s iconic stories. The author of this book is American-born and now living in Australia. Quite apart from the narrative draw of the Burke and Wills expedition in its own right, it’s obviously the sort of story that attracts writers from other countries. The English writer Sarah Murgatroyd with The Dig Tree also mined the Burke and Wills story with, I think, more success than Rabalais has had. And of course, Alan Attwood with Burke’s Soldiers and Alan Moorehead ‘s Cooper’s Creek also tell the Burke and Wills story- and they’re just the ones that I’ve read! Generations of Australian school children have heard the story; the highly glorified Burke and Wills statue has been shuffled to and fro around Melbourne streets and now overlooks the corner of Swanston and Collins Street, and the imagery is strongly reinforced by the Longstaff painting in the National Gallery of Victoria.

So how then, does a writer who has not grown up immersed and inured to all this mythologizing deal with the story? This is a fictional account, and focusses on the love interest between Robert O’Hara Burke and the actress Julia Matthews which he expands by having William Wills fall in love with her as well. I’m not aware of this twist- but hey, it’s fiction. The story is told in small snippets, disconnected in time and location and has the feeling of being at times over-written. As an Australian reader, it is familiar to me: I can’t imagine how a reader new to the story could possibly follow it.

If he is writing for an Australian audience whose knowledge of the expedition can cope with these narrative discontinuities, then he has even more responsibility to get things right. I always understood that they reached the mangroves of the Gulf of Carpentaria, observed the tidal flow, then turned back. I have never heard, as Rabalais asserts, that they stood in the foamy sea. This gives the expedition a triumph that it was denied, and there’s something very Australian in that. We are comfortable with our heroic failures- we like them that way.

There’s a sniff of the writing exercise about this book. Many sections are only 3 or 4 pages long (a good length for ‘workshopping’), and there is an appalling, anachronistic interjection of an authorial reflection about photographs which, thankfully, starts and ends abruptly never to be seen again.

The Moorehead book is the ur-text of Burke and Wills stories. Sara Murgatroyd, who died of cancer at the age of 34 just after her book’s publication, gets a good look in and has left a strong legacy. Other than that, I don’t really think the world NEEDS another Burke and Wills story.

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