Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 10, 2014

Landscape of Desire (2008), by Kevin Rabalais

Cover of The Landscape of DesireThe history of Australia’s ill-fated exploration parties makes for great reading: whether the author reconstructs the historical record into narrative or recreates it as fiction, these stories can’t help but convey the romance of exploring into the unknown; the beauty and the terror of the remote Australian landscape; the hubris of the explorers and their backers who knew nothing of the network of indigenous Songlines which already mapped the continent; and the poignant tragedy of a lonely death witnessed only by the humiliation of failure and frustrated ambition.   Landscape of Desire now joins my favourites of these stories: Patrick White’s magnificent Voss which is a fictionalisation of  Leichhardt’s doomed venture into the Great Sandy Desert  (see my review) and Sarah Murgatroyd’s brilliant history The Dig Tree which reconstructs Burke and Wills’ disastrous expedition to cross the continent which ended in tragedy at Cooper’s Creek.

Landscape of Desire is a masterly first novel fictionalising this same story.   Ambitious in scope and structure, the book assumes some knowledge of the expedition and its protagonists, introducing multiple narratives that shape events before, during and after the loss of the party, and fracturing the chronology to sustain interest in a story already very well-known.

Rabalais has resisted the temptations of first person narrative, but we hear the perspectives of Burke, the moody and eccentric police inspector-turned-leader of the expedition; and also the stoic surveyor Wills who turns out to have more in common with Burke than either of them knew.  There is the narrative of the sole survivor John King and his sojourn among the Aborigines who saved his life; of William Brahe, haunted by the bad timing of his departure from Cooper’s Creek;  and Alfred Howitt, sent by the exploration committee to investigate the disappearance but who found only King still alive.  And – missing from the heroic version of this doomed expedition that my generation learned at school – there is also the love interest: the young actress Julia Matthews whose mother hopes for more than a policeman as a husband for Julia and who, in this novel, is thus the catalyst for Burke’s efforts to impress her with his heroic venture.  (Unless there is more to the historical record than I know, this is one of a number of imagined aspects of the novel.)

By and large the technique is successful, though Julia’s voice is not as convincing as the others.  She does not, of course, have as significant or as dramatic a part to play.  Hers is a bit part, in the vast amphitheatre of this novel.   But the other characters are very compelling –  they all have so much invested in their enterprise; ambitions offset by the simple kindness and generosity of the indigenous woman Karuwa at home in a landscape that terrifies them all.

Rabalais writes with exquisite consciousness of man defeated by the hostile continent.  He tweaks the facts in order to stress the desert’s victory in an ill-conceived contest:

King looks up to see them approaching, four natives, five.  Back then, at the Gulf, his feet were the first to touch the water.*  He pressed his fingers into the wet sand.  Foam danced on his wrists, its whiteness like a revelation.  This is what he thinks of, now, here, as the men reach out to him.

Those hands he now turns upwards.  He extends his arms, reaches out to the five men  who watch this pale figure who has come to surrender, a white man, orphan of the desert sea.   (p. 55)

* The party never actually reached the Gulf of Carpentaria.  They could not penetrate past the mangrove swamps to the shore.  And it was Burke and Wills only who attempted this last leg of the northward journey, leaving King and Gray behind at Camp 119.    See Wikipedia.

Just one little niggle: stealing cattle in Australia is cattle duffing, not cattle rustling.  Rabalais is an American now living in Australia and could be forgiven for not knowing this, but his publisher should have, and it’s disappointing to see the Australian vernacular not used where it belongs.

I loved this book, but I hesitate a little to recommend it because I know that I drew on The Dig Tree in my reading of it.  I’d like to know if readers unfamiliar with the historical record might have found it a bit confusing in places.

Author: Kevin Rabalais
Title: Landscape of Desire
Publisher: Scribe, 2008
ISBN: 9781921215681
Source: Personal library


Fishpond: The Landscape of Desire


  1. The Dig Tree is one of my all-time favourite books – beautifully researched and written. I also thought Burke’s Soldier by Alan Atwood was excellent. Have you read Burke’s Soldier, Lisa?


    • Oh yes, I knew there was another one that I really loved, but I couldn’t remember its name. I just checked at GoodReads, I read it in 2005. Such a shame that Atwood doesn’t seem to have written anything since then, I met him one year at the Melbourne Writers Festival and he said he was very busy with journalism – The Big issue, I think.

      I was very pleased to see The Dig Tree reissued as a Text Classic. I’d read a library copy of the original edition, so at last I was able to buy a coy of the new edition and send it up to my father:)


  2. Ill-Fated explorations of Australia would be an interesting subject for a novel. I did read Voss, thought it was tremendous.
    I wonder if anyone has written a novel regarding Robert Falcon Scott and his ill-fated trip to Antarctica?


    • I don’t know about that one, but Sir John Franklin got a mention in Richard Flanagan’s novel Wanting ( though that was after he left Australia and went to the Arctic.


    • Anokatony, I’m not sure if you would be interested but Ranulph Fiennes wrote a non-fiction account called Captain Scott which was an interesting and enlightening read but I remember him being very biased towards Scott in his opinions and conclusions.


      • Thanks, Sharkell. Yes, ‘Captain Scott’ is one of many non-fiction books written about the Scott expedition. I remember seeing a play called ‘Terra Nova’ about it. It was very dramatic, because they found the bodies of Scott and three of his men several months later in a little makeshift hut in Antarctica. Robert Falcon Scott was considered a hero in England for a long time.


  3. I just read this after reading your review, Lisa, and like you enjoyed the fractured narrative structure. The writing is wonderfully reserved. And Rabalais was very smart in constructing a famliiar story for fresh consideration. One possible reading of King believing the party had made the Gulf is hallucination. He was in a pretty bad state when he wandered back into the Aboriginal camp. I loved the intrigue of those two kid gloves too! Cheers, John.


    • That’s a thought, I hadn’t thought of the idea of hallucination… and I should have because there are those fragments which show King’s confused state of mind.
      It’s an extraordinarily good debut novel IMO. I hope he’s working on something else…


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