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Likely Stories: Voss


Sweeping adventure in the Australian Outback by Nobel Prize winning author Patrick White.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

A few years ago I read an article in The New York Times about great forgotten writers.  One of the most intriguing was a writer I had never heard of: Patrick White, who became the first Australian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Born May 28, 1912, White served as an officer in British Intelligence during World War II.  He is most well-known for his sweeping psychological narratives of Australia, which search for his national and personal identity.  He has published 11 novels, three collections of stories, and a memoir.  I quickly became addicted to White, and I am working my way through his works.  Voss is my third read, and this is one terrific story, but it is much deeper than that for several reasons.

First of all these are extremely complex characters.  The omniscient narrator peels each one a layer at a time, to learn more about them as he unfolds the story.  Second, two stories are told in two voices.  The story of Laura Trevelyan and the society she inhabits in 1845 Sydney, Australia is every bit as vivid and enchanting as Jane Austen’s best drawing room and ball scenes.  The other story is of the title character, Ulrich Voss, who leads an expedition to cross the Australian outback with a few horses, some cattle, sheep, and goats.  He gathers a disparate variety of individuals on this quasi-scientific expedition.  This part of the novel continues the tradition of the best adventure writing of the 40s and 50s.

The personalities of all these people clash and cling to one another while undergoing extraordinary changes.  I thought of comparing this novel to something else I have read, and settled on Cold Mountain for the beauty of the prose and the epic quality of the stories, and, of course, Sense and Sensibility for the beauty and grace of society as the two best candidates.  Henry James (writing even longer sentences) in Portrait of a Lady, also comes to mind.  The writing is wonderful, but, at times, it can be a struggle.  Here is an example of White’s style:

“The Bonner’s garden was a natural setting for young ladies, observers were aware, particularly for the niece, who was of a more solitary nature, and given to dabbling in flowers, in a lady-like manner, of course, when the climate permitted.  In the mornings and the evenings she would be seen to cut the spring roses, and lay them in the long, open-ended basket, which the maid would be carrying for that purpose.  The maid was almost always at her heels.  People said that Miss [Laura] Trevelyan demanded many little, often unreasonable services, which was only to be expected of such an imperious young person, and a snob.

The style requires a great deal of concentration.  If you like a challenging novel, Patrick White’s novel Voss may be hard to find, but it is well-worth the effort. 5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read my book blog at RabbitReader.blogspot.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.