Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 3, 2014

Soundings (1993), by Liam Davison

SoundingsWhen I set out to read Liam Davison’s novels as a tribute, I had no idea how rewarding it was going to be.  I had never heard of Davison; I was motivated by sentiment and a determination that his work would not sink into obscurity because of his untimely death.  But Soundings, Davison’s second novel, has turned out to be a riveting book to read.  It’s an extraordinary book, one that sucks the reader in as surely as the mud of the mangroves of the story trap the characters into murky waters below.

The novel is written in three timeframes woven together, and – infused with an intimate knowledge of the landscape – it draws on the history of the Westernport region.  It begins in the early 19th century with a sealer called Kerrison observing his woman clubbing seals on the rocks.  Nameless, she is an Aboriginal woman, abducted from her home and her people to be Kerrison’s slave.  Kerrison witnesses a French ship arrive in the bay and take observations.  Their act of measuring and naming everything makes his familiar world suddenly feel different.  William Hovell arrived a week after the departure of the French, disconcerting Kerrison still further when he takes an interest in the woman.

As the ships sailed out of the bay, Kerrison knew that any chance of respite for him had gone and that he was left to face what had been building inside him since the French had come.  He watched his wife dragging herself across the rocks, her black skin shining with grease as she edged her way closer to a family of seals.  And he thought of the sketches the French had made of her and the questions Hovell had asked, wondering what it was they had seen that he couldn’t see for himself.  He remembered how quickly she had aged, how she’d lost the suppleness she had had as a girl and how he’d been left to share his bed with a woman he could never know.  And he hated himself for it.  Not because of what he’d done, but because he continued to live with her and because it had taken others to show him that there was more to her than he could ever have imagined before.  (p. 81-2)

Then there’s Jack Cameron, a 20th century man isolated by his temperament and his obsession with the past.   Old books, postcards and photographs act a catalyst for him to begin photographing the area, the mudflats and swamps.  He tries to recapture the way that early artists and writers viewed the landscape through the distorted lens of a European sensibility, trying ‘to see his land the way a European mind had seen it two hundred years before’. (p.28)  Staying in the home of Anton Kleist, he comes across the documents and photos of Theodore Drost, a 19th century land developer who saw the land as a place fit only for acclimatization.  He imported thousands of exotic birds and animals for hunting, and he subdivided the land to an assortment of hopefuls who thought they could tame the extensive river system draining into a tidal bay.   One of these hopefuls is Jasper Black, his son-in-law, a stubborn and difficult man who fulfils the doubts that Drost had about the suitability of Anna’s choice of husband.

The novel criss-crosses these periods of time as Cameron begins seeing images from the old photos in the landscape.  These fragments of other times and other lives bleed into his present yet while he loses his grip on reality, he also ‘sees’ the landscape in a clearer, purer light.  He gets hold of an obsolete photo-finish box (from the greyhound racing industry) and takes photos from inside it, his vista limited by the box but he is fascinated by the idea of capturing time instead of space.  He sees parties of Aborigines moving across the flats, and he witnesses what happens to Kerrison’s woman.  What he sees disturbs his sleep, the way this book disturbed mine.

Soundings is a splendid novel, revisiting our history in an innovative and challenging way.  It also shows impressive development from Davison’s first novel, The Velodrome, which I reviewed last weekSoundings won the National Book Council’s Banjo Award for Fiction in 1993, and was shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year Award and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award.  (Thanks to Sue Terry who provided the link to the ASAL obituary for Liam Davison which clarified which novels won these awards.  See Sue’s comment below).

Davison’s next novel The White Woman also questions our historical narratives, and I shall be reading it before long…

Author: Liam Davison
Title: Soundings
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press) 1993
ISBN: 9780702224621
Source: Personal library, purchased from Leura Books, Bowral, NSW, via AbeBooks


Out of print.  Try your library, or second-hand stores.




  1. I hadn’t heard of him either, Lisa, and this sounds excellent. I think this link will tell you what you want to know re which books were listed for or awarded what:


    • Thanks, Sue, that’s just the information I needed.


      • A pleasure. I might tomorrow update the Wikipedia record to provide that more explicit info.


  2. Again, a great review and I really like the sound of this one. I have found now that I can borrow books from all over Victoria via my library in South Gippsland (limited to those library’s that use the same operating platform) for no cost – I can get this book from either the Wangaratta library or the Echuca library!


    • Fantastic, do get back to me when you’ve read it, I’d love to know what you think of it.


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