Andrew McGahan

Several years ago, on two separate occasions, Drusilla Modjeska and David Marr called for Australian fiction writers to address directly the state of the country in its post-9/11 incarnation. ‘I have a simple plea to make,’ said Marr in the Redfern Town Hall in March 2003, delivering the annual Colin Simpson Lecture: ‘that writers start focusing on what is happening in this country, looking Australia in the face, not flinching … So few Australian novels – now I take my life in my hands – address in worldly, adult ways the country and the time in which we live. It’s no good ceding that territory to people like me – to journalists. That’s not good enough.’

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Andrew McGahan’s first novel, Praise (1992), concludes with its narrator, Gordon Buchanan, deciding – perhaps accepting is a better word – that he will live a life of contemplation. This final revelation is significantly ambivalent. The unresponsive persona Gordon has assumed throughout the novel is something of an affectation. On one level, he is playing the stereotypical role of the inarticulate Australian male, but his blank façade is also defensive; it is a cover for his sensitivity. For Gordon, life is less overwhelming in a practical sense than in an emotional sense. His true feelings are a garden concreted over for ease of maintenance. He feels that the defining quality of human relationships is doubt, and this doubt confounds expression. ‘I’m never certain of anything I feel about a person,’ he says, ‘and talking about it simplifies it all so brutally. It’s easier to keep quiet. To act what you feel. Actions are softer. They can be interpreted in lots of different ways, and emotions should be interpreted in lots of different ways.’

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Andrew McGahan’s final book, The Rich Man’s House, opens with an apology. ‘It’s a finished novel – I wouldn’t be letting it out into the world if it wasn’t – but I can’t deny that my abrupt decline in health has forced the publishers and I to hurry the rewriting and editing process extremely, and that this is not quite the book it would have been had cancer not intervened … 

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The second in the Ship Kings series has a cinematic feel and shares the first-rate quality of the first book. Set in a fantasy world where island folk live in unsettled peace under the ruling mariner class, it continues the tale of Dow Amber as he sets off on a sailing adventure aboard the battleship Chloe. He and the unusual scapegoat girl Ignella are the onl ...

Any novel by Andrew McGahan is likely to be a surprise, if you know his previous work, but if you were to approach this book knowing nothing about the author, there would be little about it to disturb your expectations. The cover, with its heraldic design against a marine backdrop, immediately signals its genre, and the maps on the endpapers, showing McGahan’s imagined geography of a place called New Island, confirm that this is an old-fashioned boys’ adventure novel of the heroic seafaring type. A preamble, titled ‘Fair Warning’, neatly excuses McGahan from any pretensions to oceanographic accuracy: ‘The Great Ocean rose and fell with different waves then, and different creatures moved in its depths … The ocean Dow sailed should not be confused with the lesser seas of today.’

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‘White’ and ‘earth’ are not words that sit easily together in an Australian context, so much so that placing them thus seems almost deliberately unsettling. Juxtaposed, they only serve to remind us of things that are mostly too hard for us to look at directly, a claim to a possession all know to be ill-founded ...

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