Voss by Patrick White

Review published on September 11, 2018.

I’m always highly sceptical of books that appear on one of the myriad “100 books you should read lists” (after all, you’d never in a lifetime be able to read them all!), but Voss was suggested by someone in our book group as we’re exploring novels from the past decades and often with plots set in other countries.

Set in 19th century Australia, German explorer Johann Ulrich Voss needs to meet Mr and Mrs Bonner and the elite of Sydney (Mr Bonner is a successful businessman who is funding the explorer’s adventure). Their niece Laura Trevelyan has the first introduction whilst her aunt and uncle are at church and from the immediate meeting something links both Voss and Laura in an almost spiritual liaison as they spend the majority of the novel separated – although a few letters are sent at the beginning of the expedition.

Laura remains behind – often distraught and, as a young woman of morals, becomes involved in many issues around the household and the town that highlight her above the petty social lives of many of the other young women portrayed. Meanwhile, Voss has collected a variety of men to accompany him, which include a sickly botanist, an ex convict and a few indigenous trackers who are tasked to help with the aboriginals they meet.

In the first quarter of the novel, which I struggled with, I felt the hostility of Voss and others towards the local people and this of course did (and still does unfortunately) represent the white man’s view in Australia as explorers, miners and farmers stretched out from the cities to the wild and untamed outback. The scenery is wonderfully described by the author and, as with many expeditions, it is the conditions of the weather and the lack of food, water and health that will impact on the group.

There is an interesting spiritual symmetry between the decline in fate of Voss and the circumstances in which Laura finds herself and the novel, cleverly I thought, brings the final parts together in a memorable conclusion.

Published in 1957 the author was seen as holding quite radical views and the text and dialogue is of its time whilst evoking to me some themes from Henry James as an intense view of relationships. I grew to be invested into both the survival of Voss and Laura as their own situations stretched not only their physical strengths but their inner emotional fortitude.

I took some time to get into the novel but was glad I stuck with it as a personal read. Book clubs wanting to delve into the 20th century classics (some of which have been overlooked maybe on political/colonial lines) may want to attempt it.

Philipa Coughlan 4/3

Voss by Patrick White
Vintage Classics 9780099324713 pbk Jul 1994

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