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By Patrick White
New York: The Viking Press, 1957
442 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
August, 2014

Johann Ulrich Voss has been in Australia 2 yrs. and 4 months as the novel opens. He doesn’t understand English too well. He is unkempt and rugged, even a bit shabby. In essence he is difference itself. Virtually everyone else is of English or Irish origin, and many of the characters in Sydney are out of the wealthy class.

Voss, it is fair to say is OTHER. The other.

It is roughly about 1845. Queen Victoria was on the throne of England and much of Australia had not been fully explored. Voss has come to Australia at the bidding of a group of wealthy men who want the unknown central dessert of Australia explored. A central part of that group is the uncle of Laura Trevelyan. She lives with her uncle and is fairly much dependent upon him. When Voss comes to meet with Laura’s uncle about the coming expedition, he meets Laura. They only meet a very few times, and even exchange some harsh words, yet each develops a sense of “belonging” with one another. No one else really knows much about this “relationship” if it can be called that, but it dominates this gripping novel.

Laura Trevelyan is beautiful and intelligent. She is also a bit of an outsider to the local community since she is intelligent, has given up religion and no longer attends church and is highly suspect because she reads books, especially poetry and other serious works which many in that community saw an inappropriate for women.

Voss has assembled his team for the exploration. He and Laura have never really had the chance to fully explore their potential relationship, yet something has happened to each of them, though never expressed face to face to the other.

Eventually, as the exploration is about to begin Voss writes to Laura telling her that he actually loves her and wishes to marry her after the expedition. She indicates that she is not disinterested in him and when he gets back they can more fully explore their relationship. However, from that moment on they are deeply dedicated to the other, though no further communication – in the normal sense – occurs. The novel proceeds, for each of them, as though they do understand and can somehow commune with the other, but this is never clearly explored.

Voss has his team of men and he is a sort of god figure to them, or at least to himself. He is “in charge” and lets it be known at every pass. However, a late comer to the team, Judd, is highly experienced in the outback and in effect does take on a great deal of responsibility.

The novel follows them on a disastrous adventure which ends in the death of Voss and most of the other principles, though Judd himself survives, having split from the expedition before their tragic last days.

The novel goes back and forth from the harsh and difficult exploration in the outback, to the life of Laura, back in Sydney awaiting the return of Voss, though no one in her family knows anything about their strange relationship, and certainly not of the seemingly mystical sort of communication between the two.

It is surprising that the novel is some 442 pages long, yet very little in the way of “plot” plays out. Despite that, I was quite gripped along the way, even by some of the very gory death scenes in the horrors of the outback exploration.

Voss, especially for himself, is sort of a god figure, and even at times a devil figure. Some of the men regard him in the same way, and the near-mystical sort of “communication” between Voss and Laura shares some of this mystical nature.

The novel is not an easy read. It is often frustrating since this reader, at least, wanted some results, some resolutions. But these were not provided. Life just went on in the community and on the exploration until it stopped and it was then just left at that. It doesn’t really end, it just stops. I don’t mean that as a criticism, though normally I might. I regard it simply as a description of my own reading experience.

I highly recommend the novel to any serious reader who can have the patience to let the author lead and just follow along as best you can.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett