Wake in Fright

by Kenneth Cook

First published in 1961, Wake in Fright is the story of what happens to a young man from Sydney stranded in an outback town after his first year teaching in an even more remote one room school. John Grant has his pay cheque in his pocket when he takes the six hour train ride to Bundanyabba, where he expects to spend one night before flying to Sydney.

Six weeks by the sea, to just lie in the water and soak out the dust that had seeped into his being.

But that was not to be. He imagines time spent with a girl called Robyn and stretching his pay packet over the six weeks by visiting relatives, before returning to that one room school for a second year to finish his contract and be free.

Another year in this apology for a town, himself an outcast in a community of people who were at home in the bleak and frightening land that spread out around him now, hot, dry and careless of itself and the people who professed to own it.

Text Publishing’s 2003 edition of the book is introduced by Peter Temple, accomplished crime writer and winner of the 2010 Miles Franklin Award for his book Truth. Temple calls Wake in Fright “A novel of menace” and he’s not wrong. John Grant suffers heat, isolation, alcohol, loss, violence and a kind of mateship he fails to comprehend. He stays with some unfathomable locals and goes on a mammoth, drunken kangaroo shoot where he sees and does what he never thought possible.

Obviously an outcast in this environment, Grant remains removed from his own home. There is never any suggestion of phone calls, telegrams or even letters. It seems to be the sea he is going to – the imagery consumes his dreams at times – and the idea of his girl, Robyn. Not a strong idea at all, except again in his dreams.

The imagery and symbolism of landscape permeate the book. As well as the flat, hot land and the sea there is the sky and stars:

It was almost quite dark and the stars were breaking through the purple of the sky, building up into an immense curved blanket that lay over him, quite intimately.

This is a powerful novel – almost a novella at only about 200 pages. The 1971 film is also considered a masterpiece and has been remastered in recent years.

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