Past the Headlands

by Garry Disher

Published by Allen and Unwin

348 pages, 2002

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Disher Goes Deeper

Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski


During World War II, Australia must have seemed the safest place left in the world to those who lived elsewhere. It was the other side of the world from where most of the action was taking place. In fact, the city of Darwin was bombed many times by the Japanese, a fact that is not commonly known. The pearling town of Broome in Western Australia was also bombed and the Japanese inhabitants, many of whom had been there for a very long time, were interned. This was the subject of Garry Disher's award-winning young adult novel, The Divine Wind, which was published a few years ago in Australia and in 2002 in the States.

Some of the same ground is covered in Past the Headlands, a novel for adults, that took Disher five years to research and write and is clearly a labor of love. This story, however, is painted on a much broader canvas than The Divine Wind, which was entirely set in Broome during the war years. It is set both in Asia and on Haarlem Downs, a cattle-station on the Kimberley coast near Broome.

British-born pilot, Neil Quiller, who was brought up at Haarlem Downs, has been betrayed by a spy and shot down and must make his way home across Asia, often only one step ahead of the Japanese invaders. Along the way he meets and travels with a colorful and fascinating assortment of characters, including his treacherous cousin, Cameron, who is interested only in his own survival and doesn't care whom he betrays in the process. Meanwhile, Jeannie Dunn, Cameron's wife, struggles to keep Haarlem Downs running with only two station-hands left and the constant fear of bombing, as well as dealing with the occasional group of refugees from crashed planes.

Past the Headlands sweeps you along like a rushing river, from one adventure to the next, while the many landscapes Disher shows us are almost characters in their own right. The strength of the descriptive language is amazing. When the scene is set in Singapore or Malaya, it is almost possible to feel the heat, smell the cooking of exotic foods, see the palms, feel the fear and despair of the inhabitants. The scenes at sea evoke the refugees' hunger, thirst, fear of extreme weather and terror of being sunk by Japanese planes. The Australian desert is equally well conjured for the reader.

As an adventure story alone, Past the Headlands will keep you turning the pages nonstop. Beyond that, there's the strength of the writing and the vivid characterization of even the most minor characters, as well as the ability to describe the lives of ordinary people during war time, in a part of the world that many war novels -- let's face it -- just haven't bothered to cover. | June 2003


Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.