Shipwrecks and lost loves, the Mercator projection and sand dunes, 20th-century passions and the age of exploration: this ambitious first novel by James Bradley crosses continents and centuries to explore the notion that Australia may have been discovered by the Portuguese. David is an Australian archaeologist combing sand dunes that he thinks may be hiding an ancient Portuguese ship. What he finds instead is a human body from the 1940s. An old hermit named Kurt Seligmann advances mysteriously to the fore of the narrative, voicing memories that may or may not touch on the history of this corpse. More crucially to the obsessed David, Kurt seems to possess some knowledge of the fabled sand-sunk ship. As the old man slips away into illness, David's former lover, Dr. Claire Sen, joins him at his bedside vigil. David and Claire find their own doomed story subtly twinned in Kurt's tale of obsession and love in wartime Australia.
Genuinely gripping, ingeniously plotted, and always convincingly researched, Bradley's novel has plenty of propulsive intelligence to keep the reader hooked. Bradley's first book was a volume of award-winning poetry, and he brings a poet's aptitude for language and repeated images to Wrack. Sometimes, however, this preoccupation hamstrings an otherwise compelling adventure tale. Imagery of shards crops up incessantly, which is perhaps a bit literal-minded for a novel with an archaeologist protagonist. "A memory, or perhaps less than a memory, a shard, a fragment" is a typical (fragmented) sentence--not very helpful prose and not even very nice poetry. If a book is going to invoke Michael Ondaatje as heavily as this one does, it needs to deliver more compelling writing. Still, fans of The English Patient--and Dava Sobel's Longitude, for that matter--should find much to admire in Bradley's cleverly looped and configured tale of ships at sea and lovers in sand. [via]