Secret Writing, Michael O’Sullivan’s third novel, achieves something quite rare in Australian fiction. It ventures into Patrick White’s territory, into that strange, visionary ‘country of the mind’ that White made his own—and survives.

When Luis da Costa, a young Spaniard who is injured, isolated and sick at heart, sees a desert painting by Albert Namatjira hanging in a gallery in Seville, he believes he perceives a secret writing in the landscape, and goes in search of its meaning. In his wake he mysteriously draws Pearl: a repressed, cramped woman of the Australian suburban deserts. Pearl becomes Luis’ confidante, his unwitting muse, and under his tutelage follows him ‘home’ —off into that other, magical landscape which lies, unseen, behind the habitual wallpaper of our lives.

Michael O’Sullivan traverses these two landscapes, and the realist and magico-realist style of narration which sustain them, with skill, compassion and a sly humour. Secret Writing is, simply, a fabulist achievement.

–John Clanchy

A physical journey mirroring the passage towards self-knowledge and redemption, this compassionate work explores the raw power of art and music to elicit healing, and celebrates the fabric of the Australian identity, spanning the spiritual and material landscapes cradling her inhabitants.

- from the IP Picks 2005 Judges’ Report

Secret Writing takes the reader on a journey through two lives, brought together by the “secret writing” in Albert Namatjira’s paintings. Luis and Pearl are very different, and yet a chance meeting at a hospital on the Costa del Sol ignites a quest for both of them.

Luis decides to journey to Central Australia so that he can decipher and understand the secret writing he believes is in Namatjira’s paintings. When his journal is sent to Pearl, it arouses a curiosity in her, so that she too travels to Central Australia, retracing Luis’ footsteps.

All is not as it seems however, as the brother and sister Luis was staying with, Sweepa and Francine, have somehow been transformed into the brother/sister duo Errol and Helen, who take Pearl in.

Both sets of brother and sister appeal to different sides of the two different travellers and in time help them to explore and understand the country, as well as find answers to the multitude of life’s questions that arise during their exploration of Central Australia.

Michael O’Sullivan is the author of two previous novels. Before becoming a writer he worked as a fencing contractor, carpenter and builder, university tutor, librarian and archivist.

He lives with his wife and three children in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales.


Judges’ report on IP Picks 05

Interview with Michael