Robin Gerster reviews 'Past the Headlands' by Garry Disher

Robin Gerster reviews 'Past the Headlands' by Garry Disher

Past the Headlands

by Garry Disher

Allen & Unwin, $24.95 pb, 352 pp, 1865085391

Contemporary Australian fiction continues to lean on the national past. Perhaps that’s a comment on the present, or the future, for that matter. It seems to be not so much a matter of the past being experientially ‘another country’, but a more engaging version of the literal one. Edgy, experimental attempts to represent the here and now, and to foretell what may lie ahead, such as Bernard Cohen’s Snowdome, are relatively thin on the ground; better, for example, to revive Our Ned for one more fictional fling. War, of all historical subjects, compels the Australian imagination more than any other. Yet World War II, less mythologised than its historical predecessor, but much more important to Australia, warrants more attention than it has received. It is sometimes said that Vietnam was the moment when Australia realised Asia wasn’t ‘the East’ (a cartographical absurdity we inherited from Europe), but its Near North. That’s nonsense: it was early 1942, with the Japanese ‘thrust’ down the Malay Peninsula, the Fall of Singapore, and the bombing of Darwin, that alerted Australia to its regional situation.

Garry Disher tackles this historical terrain in his new novel. Its hero, Neil Quiller, was born in England to an Australian mother just after World War I, the product of a wartime romance. When she dies, he is sent back, aged thirteen, to Haarlem Downs, the family cattle station on the Kimberley coast of far north-west Australia. Quiller’s ‘years of exile’ are abruptly ended by the outbreak of war, which he sees as an opportunity to reclaim his tenuous English identity. A capable pilot, Quiller serves as a photo-reconnaissance pilot for the RAF, flying perilous sorties from bases in Malaya, before becoming caught up in the Japanese invasion.

Subscribe to ABR

Read the rest of this article by subscribing to ABR Online for as little as $10 a month.

We offer a range of subscription options, including print, which can be found by clicking here. If you are already a subscriber, enter your username and password in the ‘Log In’ section in the top right-hand corner of the screen.

If you require assistance, contact us or consult the Frequently Asked Questions page.

Published in July 2001, no. 232
Robin Gerster

Robin Gerster

Robin Gerster is Professor in the School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University. He is the author of Big-noting: The Heroic Theme in Australian War Writing (1987) and several other books, including Travels in Atomic Sunshine: Australia and the Occupation of Japan (2008). His latest work (co-written with Melissa Miles) is Pacific Exposures: Photography and the Australia-Japan Relationship (2018).

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.