Shipwrecks and lost loves, the Mercator projection and sand dunes, 20th-century passions and the age of exploration: this ambitious first novel by James Bradley crosses continents and centuries to explore the notion that Australia may have been discovered by the Portuguese. David is an Australian archaeologist combing sand dunes that he thinks may be hiding an ancient Portuguese ship. What he finds instead is a human body from the 1940s. An old hermit named Kurt Seligmann advances mysteriously to the fore of the narrative, voicing memories that may or may not touch on the history of this corpse. More crucially to the obsessed David, Kurt seems to possess some knowledge of the fabled sand-sunk ship. As the old man slips away into illness, David's former lover, Dr. Claire Sen, joins him at his bedside vigil. David and Claire find their own doomed story subtly twinned in Kurt's tale of obsession and love in wartime Australia.
Genuinely gripping, ingeniously plotted, and always convincingly researched, Bradley's novel has plenty of propulsive intelligence to keep the reader hooked. Bradley's first book was a volume of award-winning poetry, and he brings a poet's aptitude for language and repeated images to Wrack. Sometimes, however, this preoccupation hamstrings an otherwise compelling adventure tale. Imagery of shards crops up incessantly, which is perhaps a bit literal-minded for a novel with an archaeologist protagonist. "A memory, or perhaps less than a memory, a shard, a fragment" is a typical (fragmented) sentence--not very helpful prose and not even very nice poetry. If a book is going to invoke Michael Ondaatje as heavily as this one does, it needs to deliver more compelling writing. Still, fans of The English Patient--and Dava Sobel's Longitude, for that matter--should find much to admire in Bradley's cleverly looped and configured tale of ships at sea and lovers in sand.
From Publishers Weekly
A seamless fusion of dramatic wartime love story, historical fiction and archeological murder mystery, Australian writer Bradley's accomplished debut novel has a dreamlike compulsion. Archeologist David Norfolk, obsessively searching for a 16th-century Portuguese ship wrecked on the coast of New South Wales, digs up the body of a man shot to death 50 years earlier. An Ondaatjean hermit, cantankerous, cancer-ridden and living in a nearby shack, holds the clue both to the victim's identity and the ship's whereabouts. As David and his ex-girlfriend Dr. Claire Sen tend to the dying recluse, Kurt Seligmann, and resume a romance of their own, they listen to their patient reminisce about the years 1937-1942, when he was an archeologist from Sidney, living in occupied Singapore and embroiled in an affair with the wife of his mentor and best friend, Fraser McDonald. (The corpse on the beach, it turns out, could be Fraser.) Seligmann, too, once searched for the wreck that Norfolk seeksAa ship that, if found, could challenge Tasman and Cook's claim to have discovered the continent and would explain the presence of the land mass on Renaissance maps. Bradley adroitly interpolates details of the fierce rivalry between the 16th-century Spanish and Portuguese empires, and fascinating lore on mapmaking. His prose, which alternates between clipped, declarative statements and lyrical, metaphor-filled cadenzas, may make too sweet a meal for some readers. The novel's concluding wordsA"the past is... a shifting sea with nothing at its center, except illusions, and loss"Aexemplifies the kind of generalization that weakens this otherwise suspenseful story. Yet Bradley's skill in interweaving the novel's strands to create a graceful meditation on death, ambition and obsession creates a memorable novel. (May) FYI: Wrack won two Australian literary awards and was shortlisted for the 1998 Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book.
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