You are on page 1of 18


Winner, The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award, 1991
Winner, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Pacific Region), 1992
Shortlisted, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, 1992
Shortlisted, Adelaide Festival Award for Literature, 1992
Shortlisted, Canada–Australia Literary Award, 1992

‘McGahan’s book is a bracing slap in the face to conventional platitudes and

hypocrises.’ Weekend Australian

‘Candid and unembarrassed, McGahan’s work throbs with an intensity.’

New Zealand Herald

‘Praise is one of those books that takes a hefty bite out of a piece of subject
matter, chews it to a pulp and then spits it out.’ Peter Craven

‘McGahan’s gritty, unflinching Praise is one of few Australian novels of the

90s that really matter.’ David Marr

‘A tour-de-force revelation of life in the slow lane of drugs and sex and
alcohol.’ Weekend Australian

‘A fiendish and eventful psychological novel . . . hugely satisfying.’ New York
Times Book Review

‘The pre-eminent Australian road novel.’ The Australian

‘Untamed and frankly shocking. When 1988 is dismissed as “another” young

man’s angsting book by reviewers deaf to the stylistic magic of this book, it
makes the joke even funnier.’ The Age

Bh3052M-PressProofs.indd i 11/06/19 2:21 PM

Winner, Ned Kelly Award for Australian Crime Writing, 2001
Shortlisted, The Age Book of the Year Award, 2001
Shortlisted, The Courier Mail Book of the Year, 2001

‘Andrew McGahan’s genre-busting Last Drinks is my pick of the year.’

John Birmingham, The Age

‘Last Drinks, fast moving, funny and shocking, is a lament for all that can
go wrong not only in the life of one man, but in the life of an entire state.
This is crime fiction that transcends the genre. It’s a truly compelling and
stylish novel, seamlessly written.’ Debra Adelaide, Sydney Morning Herald

‘Wrestles with problems like love, addiction, hate and faith; and with conflicts
of the heart, politics and pain. This is territory you might think belonged
in books like Power without Glory and Brighton Rock.’ Michael Shuttleworth,
Bookseller and Publisher

Winner, The Miles Franklin Literary Award, 2005
Winner, The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize
(South East Asia and South Pacific Region), 2005
Winner, National Year of Reading 2012, Queensland
Winner, The Age Book of the Year (Fiction), 2004
Winner, The Courier Mail Book of the Year Award, 2004
Shortlisted, Queensland Premier’s Literary Award, 2004
Shortlisted, Festival Awards for Literature (SA) Award for Fiction, 2006
Longlisted, International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2005

Bh3052M-PressProofs.indd ii 11/06/19 3:13 PM

‘The glue that holds it all together is McGahan’s tremendous narrative
skill. The White Earth is a long book, but there is nothing sprawling about
it. A lean, intelligent and incisive novel.’ James Ley, Sydney Morning Herald

‘The novel is beautifully structured, filled with parallels and reverberations

which come back to haunt and illuminate the reader as the story unfolds.’
Katharine England, Adelaide Advertiser

‘A great Australian story embracing national themes that should engage us

all.’ Lucy Clark, Sunday Telegraph

‘Impressive . . . A well-wrought, meditative reflection on Australia’s colonialist

demons.’ Publishers Weekly

‘The contemporary setting notwithstanding, these characters have a timeless

quality and could have stepped from the pages of a Dickens novel.’ The Age

Shortlisted, Queensland Premier’s Literary Award, 2007
Shortlisted, Best Science Fiction Novel, Aurealis Awards, 2006

‘A corker of a book. On the surface it’s a tense, engaging political thriller, but
there is no hiding from its articulate critique of Australian society.’ Herald Sun

‘A delicious romp through an Australia both familiar and deeply disturbing.’

Courier Mail

‘A fast-moving and sometimes outrageous action-adventure novel . . . It is,

without doubt, McGahan’s most nakedly political work so far.’ Sydney Morning

Bh3052M-PressProofs.indd iii 11/06/19 2:21 PM

Winner, Best Science Fiction Novel, Aurealis Awards, 2009

‘The writing is as taut as strung nerves, its grip like that of a madman intent
on taking you to the nightmare of the end of the world . . . an extraordinary
high-wire act.’ Courier Mail

‘. . . the writing rises to invigorating heights, bringing us into the very midst
of a thunderstorm through an intriguing combination of scientific descrip-
tion and a kind of magic realism.’ Sunday Tasmanian

‘Astounding . . . Wonders of a Godless World veers grippingly from the sublime

to the miraculous . . . it is a spellbinding, lunatic, supernatural opera.’ Sydney
Morning Herald

‘A fable, an allegory, an exploration of the innermost secrets of both the uni-

verse and the mind. Andrew McGahan has once again proved himself to be
a chameleon of storytelling with his latest book, Wonders of a Godless World,
itself a wonder of imagination and discovery. McGahan is a conjuror—this
magical tale of the orphan and the foreigner is utterly original and has its
own confounding logic as it hurtles the reader to the edge of the universe
and beyond. This is a book whose questions and propositions echo long
after its final pages are read.’ Books and Publishing

Bh3052M-PressProofs.indd iv 11/06/19 2:21 PM

Bh3052M-PressProofs.indd vii 11/06/19 2:21 PM
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organisations, places and incidents
either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any
resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or
locales is entirely coincidental.

First published in 2019

Copyright © Andrew McGahan 2019

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in

any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying,
recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior
permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever
is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational
purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has
given a remuneration notice to the Copyright Agency (Australia) under the Act.

Kind permission received from Faber and Faber Ltd to quote from ‘The Wasteland’
by T.S. Eliot on p. 347.

Allen & Unwin

83 Alexander Street
Crows Nest NSW 2065
Phone: (61 2) 8425 0100

A catalogue record for this

book is available from the
National Library of Australia

ISBN 978 1 76052 982 6

Internal design by Sandy Cull, gogoGingko

Set in 11.7/17 pt Berkeley Oldstyle by Bookhouse, Sydney
Printed and bound in Australia by Griffin Press, part of Ovato

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

The paper in this book is FSC® certified.

FSC® promotes environmentally responsible,
socially beneficial and economically viable
management of the world’s forests.

Bh3052M-PressProofs.indd viii 12/06/19 11:26 AM

Au thor’s no te

An author can’t always say that with certainty, but as I’m in the
final stages of dying as I type this, it seems a safe bet. It’s a finished
novel—I wouldn’t be letting it out into the world if it wasn’t—but I
can’t deny that my abrupt decline in health has forced the publishers
and I to hurry the rewriting and editing process extremely, and that
this is not quite the book it would have been had cancer not inter-
vened. That doesn’t help with any flaws you might find in the story,
but it might explain them, and for once I can fairly plead—I was really
going to fix that!

Bh3052M-PressProofs.indd xi 11/06/19 2:21 PM


Bh3052M-PressProofs.indd 19 11/06/19 2:21 PM


A Funer a l

DE AT H IS T H E GR E AT IN V IGOR ATOR . It awakens and stirs those

left behind—the deceased’s family, their colleagues, their dependants,
whomever is bound to them in any way—like a slap across the face
of a sleeper. Everything that has seemed fixed up to that point, loves,
grievances, financial affairs, breaks loose the instant that the individual
in question dies, and a thousand eventualities that were impossible
before—whether to be dreaded, or desired—suddenly come into play.
So it was for Rita Gausse upon the death of her father, even though
they had barely spoken in years. Aged forty-five, she had, in the pre-
vious decade, fought the storm of her life to the point where she had
wrested out a small haven of calm for herself, a port amid the whirl,
and was finally catching her breath a little. But the news of her father’s
passing, little though it meant to her at first, would break her lashings
and hurl her bodily out to sea again—literally.
She learned of that death only a few hours before it appeared in
headlines around the world, the dateline April 17, 2016. Not front-page
headlines, but headlines all the same.
Acclaimed architect dies in home of Walter Richman—or words to
that effect, always mentioning the name of the famous client, of course,
followed by the minimal details. Influential architect Richard Gausse
has been found dead at age 78 in the newly completed home of billionaire


Bh3052M-PressProofs.indd 21 11/06/19 2:21 PM


Walter Richman. Gausse designed the controversial, multi-hundred-million

dollar residence on Theodolite Isle in the Southern Ocean, and had been over-
seeing the final stages of construction. He was known to be suffering ill health
and Tasmanian police who attended the scene report no suspicious circum-
stances. Gausse leaves behind his second wife Amanda and their three adult
children, George, Jerome and Erica, and Rita, daughter from his first mar-
riage to Candice, predeceased. Richard Jerome Gausse was born in 1938 in
Rose Hill, Sydney, to Belgian migrant parents and studied architecture at the
University of Melbourne. Most famous for his ‘buried’ style of design, he first
rose to fame in the 1960s with . . .
And so on.
It was Amanda, second wife, estranged but not divorced, who had
called Rita with the news.
‘The old bastard has croaked it, luv,’ were her first words over the
phone, pronounced in what sounded like an exhalation of nicotine.
Amanda was Sydney high society, but her speech patterns were pure
fish-and-chips. ‘His heart again, they’re telling me. As if he had one,
right, luv? You and me know, god help us.’ She was crying through the
cigarette drags, and laughing too, in a fond, bewildered way.
‘Amanda, are you okay?’ Rita asked. ‘Have you got someone there?’
They had always got along, stepdaughter and stepmother. Better in
most ways than either of them got on with father and husband.
‘Oh, I’m fine. Erica’s here, and the boys are coming over. It’s you
I’m worried about. All alone down there. What are you going to do?’
The two woman were a thousand kilometres apart. Amanda, propped
up no doubt on her overstuffed couch in her Elizabeth Bay apartment
with its harbour views, and Rita standing in her pyjamas staring out
over her living room balcony to the dim valley of the Maribyrnong and
the orange night-glow of the Melbourne skyline beyond. It was three
in the morning, but Rita had not been asleep. Even in this second and
far more respectable career—a veterinarian now five years graduated
and specialising in emergency care—she was as nocturnal as she had


Bh3052M-PressProofs.indd 22 11/06/19 2:21 PM


ever been, working night shifts at an animal hospital across the river in
Kensington. ‘What is there to do, really?’ she replied. ‘I mean, for now.
I know there’ll be the funeral, later, I suppose. Are you going to . . . ?’
‘Oh, yes, I’ll see him buried nice and proper, course I will. At least,
when we get him back from that god-awful rock. Did you know about
that job, luv? When did you talk to him last?’
‘Not since before he started there, I think. I’d heard about it though,
it was always in the news.’ And how the old Rita would have railed
against him for being involved in such a project: by all the gods, he
couldn’t have picked anything worse. But the new Rita, thankfully, had
remained indifferent.
They talked details for a few minutes, then, after further protesta-
tions of concern, and offers of accommodation in Sydney from Amanda,
the two women hung up on each other.
Leaving Rita to gaze out at the night. And to think—So, he’s dead.
Dad is dead. I have no father.
How did that make her feel?
In truth, other than a mild sense of surprise, the news had so far
roused little emotion in her at all. Unless, of course, she was in denial,
and masking a deeper grief or rage within.
But she didn’t think so. There was no call for any consuming grief
or shock: his death hardly came out of nowhere. He had never been
in good health since his first heart attack in his late sixties, and then
the cancer scare at seventy-two. He ate all wrong, drank too much . . .
As for rage, well, there wasn’t much anger left. She no longer blamed
him for the way things had gone. Not since her own . . . well, fall from
grace. They had made up in their fashion, after not speaking all the way
from Rita’s twenty-first birthday to her fortieth. And during the lunches
and dinners of their rapprochement they had got along amiably enough.
If they hadn’t kept in close contact since, well, it didn’t signify any great
hatred, or any great issue unresolved. It just was.


Bh3052M-PressProofs.indd 23 11/06/19 2:21 PM


She searched herself again. No, there was no repressed wail of emotion
hiding inside her. Her father was dead now. Her mother, long before.
There was nothing else to be said. Certainly, she could see no reason
why it should change anything in her life.
She poured herself a glass of white wine and drank it in his honour
while sitting on the balcony, watching the river; the cat, Simon—a rescue
from the clinic—on her lap. Then she went to bed.

The funeral, a fortnight later, was an event, as of course it would be,

given Richard Gausse’s fame within the architectural world and the long
list of his rich clients, and given Amanda’s love of a party.
The grand Centennial Hall at the Sydney Town Hall was host to
the formal ceremony and eulogies. A confirmed atheist (one trait Rita
had always shared with him), there would be no farewelling of Richard
Gausse in a church. The following wake was a gorgeously catered affair
for three hundred of his closest friends and clients, hosted in a huge
marquee in the grounds of Richard’s own cavernous mansion in Rose Bay.
The place had sat empty of late, but proved useful now.
Rita attended both. She did not speak at the funeral, only watched all
the eulogists up on the stage, and at the wake she felt slightly apart from
it all, the one orphan of the family now, compared to her stepsiblings,
an out-of-towner, lost among the glamour of the Sydney elite. True, she
had been born and partly raised in Sydney, and she knew many of the
faces, and some even remembered her. But she had never truly thought
of Sydney as home: the family had been away so much when she was
a child, travelling about the world for Richard’s work, and at eighteen
Rita had officially fled the city in the process of fleeing her father.
Meanwhile, she got thoroughly, if genteelly, drunk at the wake. Yes,
her drug-taking days were behind her now, but alcohol remained a
lifeline, as necessary as it had ever been. So her recollections the next


Bh3052M-PressProofs.indd 24 11/06/19 2:21 PM


morning were hazy, no more really than a disjointed assortment of

moments from the whole day.
One instant was an encounter in the Town Hall just after the cere-
mony, memorable purely for its awkwardness. Rita had been momentarily
stranded with a duchess-like acquaintance of Amanda’s, who, in a stab at
conversation, made three faux pas in a row. The first, mistaking Rita for
one of Amanda’s own children, was the urgent inquiry, I’m told his first
family was rather unstable; wife and daughter both. Is the daughter here, do
you know? The second, forging on bravely in the face of Rita’s admission
that she in fact was the daughter, was the breezy observation, Oh, well,
I so wanted to meet you. You’re the one who wrote that strange book, the one
that had you prancing around naked in the hills, or something similar, aren’t
you? Can we expect another one soon? And the third, flailing after Rita’s
frosty reply in the negative, was the tentative, And you’re married, you
have children of your own now . . . ? Oh, no wait, that’s right . . . At which
point Amanda had returned to drag the fool woman away.
Another image—from much later in the night, as the party was
winding up, with Rita well in the pleasant grip of red wine—was of a
very svelte couple, younger than her, in their thirties maybe, whom she
had found herself talking with, discretely but unmistakably inviting her
back to their place for a threesome, an offer she had pretended not to
understand. At her father’s wake, for heaven’s sake!
But two other memories loomed larger, and both of them, strangely,
involved her father’s client—his last—Walter Richman.
The billionaire himself had not attended the funeral—considerately,
in Amanda’s view, as she told Rita, for if he had shown up, then the
ceremony would have gone from an A-list-but-tastefully-restrained party
to a full-blown media circus. Instead he had sent a video message to be
played in the hall during the orations.
It was the last of several such recorded testimonials from famous
clients based overseas. Rita had ignored the others, for from her seat in


Bh3052M-PressProofs.indd 25 11/06/19 2:21 PM


the front row alongside Amanda and her stepsiblings, the big screen,
hanging almost directly above, was hard to see. In her abstraction,
she hadn’t cared anyway about what strangers had to say regarding the
no-doubt hideously beautiful mansions and office blocks her father had
designed for them. But when Richman came on, something about his
voice, booming through the hall, made her crane her neck and actually
look at him, looming giant overhead, and listen.
She knew his face, of course, lean and wry and somehow battered,
hair cut long and still lusciously black, even though he must be in
his seventies by now. Who in the world didn’t know that face? Still,
it was different to see it like this, not in a news broadcast or on a
front page, but in a privately filmed clip, shot—where? In the house
her father had built for him? It was impossible to say. Richman was
sitting forward on a couch in a dimly lit room, the background in soft
focus, anonymous.
‘Richard Gausse was my friend,’ rolled the voice, rich and low, with
its effortlessly confident American accent, New York–genteel. ‘And I say
that at a time in life when men don’t easily make friends. But in the
short while that we worked together, on one of the most difficult pro-
jects imaginable, we truly formed a bond. Indeed, in the last years of
his life, I was perhaps his only intimate companion, and learned much
of his heart. And so to Amanda and to all of his children, George and
Jerome and Erica, and Rita, I say this: though he was separate from you
physically, you were all very much in his thoughts—increasingly so, as
his health failed. And he was haunted by sadness and regrets of which
he can never now speak to you. But I hope that you can remember him
well, as I do.’
For a moment more Walter Richman stared earnestly, compellingly,
at the camera. Then the image faded, and he was gone.
What a strange thing to say, Rita thought, as the ceremony moved
on. To claim, in such a public forum, to be in possession of the final


Bh3052M-PressProofs.indd 26 11/06/19 2:21 PM


intimacies of a dead man, in front of his own family. Weird. But no one
else remarked on it throughout the day.
And the last, and strangest memory of all, also involved the billion-
aire. Very late in the night, not long after Rita had escaped the lure of
the threesome couple and was gathering her things before calling a taxi
to take her to the hotel, a woman approached.
‘Ms Gausse?’
Caught unawares, Rita threw back her head somewhat dizzily to get
a look at the woman. She was no one Rita recognised, no one she had
noticed throughout the day, even though she was quite striking; of middle
age, perhaps, but trim and fit, her poise graceful in some indefinable
way, her dress impeccably black, her legs clad in supple knee-length
leather boots, her hair a bright dyed-blonde cropped very short.
‘Yes?’ said Rita.
‘If I might introduce myself, my name is Clara Lang, and I work for
Walter Richman.’
Rita stared in surprise. The woman’s accent was international, mostly
US but mixed with a trace of European, German maybe, or Dutch. And
on closer inspection there was something strange about her face: her
nose was shaped as if it should be one of Nordic fineness, but there was
a sudden bluntness to its tip, a marring of some kind.
‘Oh, yes,’ Rita said, after a gap. ‘What do you do for him?’
The woman gave a quirked smile, and Rita knew, the way the drunken
do, that she was sober, had not taken a drink all day. ‘I’m the chief of
his private staff, although the title he prefers is major-domo. I manage his
day-to-day affairs. He sent me to be his representative here today. I’ve
passed on Mr Richman’s condolences to your stepmother and stepsiblings
already—but I did not want to miss you. You especially.’
Rita swayed a little, flushed and self-conscious now. ‘Well, that’s very
kind of you.’ But couldn’t this have been done earlier, instead of now,
when she was leaving, and so damn woozy?


Bh3052M-PressProofs.indd 27 11/06/19 2:21 PM


The woman nodded as if understanding. ‘In truth, I wanted a moment

alone with you, away from attentive eyes and ears. I have a private
message for you from my employer.’
‘From Walter Richman?’
‘Yes. He has a request to make of you.’
Another sway. ‘What?’
The woman’s calm gaze seemed to note the sway, and her lopsided
smile came again. ‘Well, this isn’t the best time to discuss it. Not at your
father’s funeral service. And you’re about to leave anyway, I see.’ Her
hand slipped deftly into a small handbag and produced a card, held it
forwards. ‘In two weeks from now, I’ll be in Melbourne on business.
Perhaps I could meet with you then in more relaxed circumstances?’
Rita took the card, noting that the woman’s right hand was missing
its little finger, a slim white scar the only remainder. Half of the forth
finger was missing as well. ‘If you like, yes.’
‘Good. I’ll call you. I have your number, if you can excuse the liberty.
Your stepmother’s legal people gave it to me.’
And with a nod, the woman withdrew, slipping off towards the exit
without giving anyone else in the milling crowd a glance.
Which sent Rita baffled to her taxi.
When she woke the next morning, hungover and wrung out, with
those calm eyes, blonde hair and a maimed hand hovering in her mind,
she might have thought the encounter was only a dream, tacked onto
her memories of the actual party. Except that when she went through her
bag, the card was there, plain but elegant.
Clara Lang, it said.
And nothing else but a mobile phone number. There was no email
address, no job description, no title, no company or function. But it
proved at least that she was real. Her, and Walter Richman.
But what could it all be about?
Rita gave a mental shrug. Time would tell, and she needed to get
going. She was due back in Melbourne for work and had a tedious


Bh3052M-PressProofs.indd 28 11/06/19 2:21 PM


twelve-hour drive down the Hume Highway ahead of her. The trip
would have been just an hour by air, of course, but there was no point
reminding herself of that. Even now, after everything else she had repudi-
ated and dismissed from the old days, she could still not go near a plane.
She made for the shower.


Bh3052M-PressProofs.indd 29 11/06/19 2:21 PM