When we first encounter Snip Freeman--artist, drifter, and zealously independent protagonist of Nikki Gemmell's second novel, Alice Springs--she has just received $30,000 from her deceased grandmother, along with a cryptic imperative: "Hunt him down." The him is Snip's wayward father, Bud; the hunt, as it turns out, becomes the layered heart of the book, as Snip confronts not only Bud and his 20-year estrangement from the family, but also the wary, gypsy nature he long ago bequeathed her. Set largely in the dusty vastness of the Australian desert, Alice Springs is a quirky hodgepodge of tales--part love story, part family drama, even part thriller--that Gemmell strives gamely to corral.
As Snip sets out to track down her father, she inadvertently becomes ensnared herself: her codriver, Dave, located through a newspaper ad, makes her more aware than ever of her increasingly isolating rootlessness. When she finally locates Bud, and their own journey into the desert leaves them with a punctured gas tank and dwindling supplies, Snip learns how her parents' recklessness shaped her: "It runs in the family, the not stopping to think things through, the running." Dispirited by Bud's example of a solitary life, Snip contemplates forging some sort of relationship with Dave.
Gemmell's prose is clipped and lively, and her novel is punctuated with stark, lovely descriptions. Yet she insists so adamantly on Snip's desperado restlessness, it begins to seem dubious. The lengthy section that finds Bud and Snip stranded together occasionally feels contrived, as well, a too-convenient interlude of reunion and discovery. Alice Springs is most successful when it sticks to exploring the ambiguities of love, the hazy places where affection diverges from self-absorption. --Ben Guterson