An expedition led by Robert O’Hara Burke left Melbourne in 1860 to attempt a South-North crossing of the continent. It entered Australian folklore for the manner of its failure, with Burke and Wills dying on the banks of Cooper Creek after almost reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Reality, as usual, was messier than the legend. Plain bad luck played a big part but Burke’s confidence exceeded his competence and conditions were harsher than anyone could have expected. One of Burke and Wills' two companions on the Gulf trip survived thanks to the kindness of local Aboriginal people and was brought back to Melbourne by Howitt's rescue expedition a year after Burke set out.

Kevin Rabalais describes his book as fiction 'loosely based' on the history of the expedition but stays close to the facts apart from the addition of a romantic sub-plot. Shifting from one viewpoint to another, he fragments the narrative into a mosaic of vivid images and lets his characters’ self-deception, ignorance or delirium refract and blur the truth as mirages do. It's a strategy which could have succeeded wonderfully but the voices are not quite as individual as they need to be: everyone seems emotionally flattened by the desolate landscape, even the young actress who never saw it.

The Landscape of Desire has been warmly welcomed by Alex Miller (whose recent Landscape of Farewell relates to it in more than title) and David Malouf. It is a stunning debut and an impressive attempt to give our colonial history some mythic resonance.

Scribe, March 2008, $29.95

Review originally published May 2008
Page created Nov 2008