Cover image for Alice Springs
Alice Springs
Gemmell, Nikki.
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Viking, 1999.
Physical Description:
260 pages ; 23 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Phillipa "Snip" Freeman has trouble putting down roots. She is an artist and a wanderer, tough and in control of her world. That is until an envelope arrives, mailed by her grandmother before her death. In it, a check for $30,000 and one simple instruction: hunt him down. With the money Snip buys a utility vehicle, takes on a traveling companion, and sets off to find her father somewhere in the vast outback. Along the way we are introduced to the real Snip Freeman--a child once witness to her parents' violent breakup; a girl who learned never to trust men so she used them instead; and a woman who finds that this time there is nowhere to run.Alice Springs is a story about the pitfalls of love and the power of forgiveness--a story fueled by the rush of venturing head first into the unknown. In spare, vivid prose reminiscent of the vernacular of the aboriginals, Nikki Gemmell explores both physical and emotional landscapes with breathtaking intensity.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Although this tale is grounded, quite literally, in Australia, its interior landscape and intensity of language carry one over any stray incomprehensibilities of aboriginal or local vernacular. Snip is an artist who lives a nomad's existence, carrying her sleeping bag, her paints, and her heart's wounds from place to place until her grandmother's legacy--a wad of cash and the instructions to "hunt him down" --move her to confront her father, Bud, whose actions have exerted such emotional coercion over Snip and her mother that neither of them can break free. The center of the book is a long, hallucinatory sojourn in the desert, where Bud's folly has dragged them. There Snip learns the vicious answers to the questions that have dogged her about her parents' breakup. We see with pitiless clarity how completely Bud has formed her character, including her longing for and withdrawal from Dave, the sweet man who loves her. A fierce, white-hot read with a rough ending--but, oh, what a journey there. --GraceAnne A. DeCandido

Publisher's Weekly Review

FYI: Gemmell's first novel, Shiver, a bestseller in Australia but not published in the States, has been optioned for film by director Roger Donaldson. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Snip Freeman's mother calls her a neophiliacÄalways in search of something new. A 30-year old painter, Snip is the product of a violently broken home, a willing abduction, and a mass of unanswered questions. A bequest from her grandmother sends Snip across the Australian continent in search of her father, Bud. She advertises for a driving companion and finds Dave. Unwillingly, she falls in love with him, but then they part. Snip finds Bud and takes off with him on a disasterous road trip that leaves them stranded in the desert. While waiting for rescue or death, Snip drags the ugly story of her parents' troubles out of Bud. As a result of her desert ordeal, Snip decides to try a more permanent and settled life with Dave. Gemmell tells a compelling story, beautifully laced with a mix of Aboriginal and European culture. She provides a rhythmic see-saw from desert to water, from old to new. The Australian slang used is a little puzzling at first, but this detracts little from a well-told tale. Recommended. [This is Australian Gremmell's second novel but the first to be published in the United States.ÄEd.]ÄJoanna M. Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Coll. of Continuing Education Lib., Providence (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One THE JOURNEY BEGINS * * * `My hair feels like cotton wool.' The gears are dropped and the car is stopped just before the bit-place underground town five hundred kilometres from anywhere.     `Out ya get.'     The young man walks to the boot of his Valiant Regal and hauls out a straining cardboard port that is held together by one rusted clasp. He kneels. The case springs open gratefully at his touch and he hovers by the empty roadside over the tangible bits of his life. He dips his hands in the mess of Bible and screwdrivers and caplamp and golfing mug and photos and shaving brush and singlets and Dr Spock manual and Masonic tie, until they stop at a pair of mean-looking, black-handled dressmaking scissors that he's remembered to take from the tangle of his wife's pink and padded sewing box in his last act of taking, twenty-four hours ago, from the love of his life.     `C'mon, out ya get,' he says to the little head propped on elbows watching greedily from the wound-down car window and smartly snapping bubblegum. She gets out. She stands obediently before him. He crouches down to her, turns her around and holds out a dust-clotted, knot-clogged matt of hair, thick as his little finger, and snips it off.     Snip snip snip.     Seared into her is that careful, clean sound of resolution as the scissors close on each stick-tangle of hair.     Snip snip.     Until there are no more.     Her head feels like it's letting the air in.     She puts her hand up to the tufts and he puts his hand over hers and runs them over her scalp, like a basketballer feeling a ball before a game.     `There you go my little man, no-one's ever gonna find you now.' ANOTHER JOURNEY BEGINS Sydney to Alice Springs. One country girl, one city-boy, one Holden ute.     The city stop-start vanishes into a six-lane freeway and a biblical sky. La Traviata 's turned up. Snip yanks down the window and holds high her hand, hitting the breeze. The car is the cabin confessional that's to be the two strangers' close quarters for the next four thousand kilometres. The where-they're-at in the other-half stakes is quickly, cleanly established. He's called Dave. He's twenty-six. He's just out of a seen-from-afar-at-a-bar situation that never really connected. She's thirty and she's just had the recent farewell of the boyfriend of two months that she never loved, or maybe did but didn't know.     `You'd know, Snip, you'd know.'     `Hmmm.'     She smiles and stretches, four days to go.     Snip holds her face to the slap of the wind. She sees speeding green and a clutter of New South Wales signs. The land's so huddled, it's all town upon town and hill rolling on to hill. This is the country? Where's the space? She's a desert girl, sand is her dirt.     The city-boy is a talker and he tells Snip it's a hell truck and he loves it and he asks her how long has she had it.     `Look at the mileage.'     He looks, says crikey and sits up straight. Smooths down the kick of his fringe. Asks her why he's driving such a virgin car. Snip trails her hand out the window and the wind snatches her apple core. She stares back down the barrel of the road and says she came into a bit of money and it's a long story and she leaves it at that, hoping it's enough and knowing it's not.     Small talk is not her way. Her words often come out bitten and jagged and stopped up and wrong, so more often than not she leaves them inside. Snip will not be discussing the origins of the cheque. For ten days she's been brooding about it like a hen in the corner of a coop, waiting and not moving and blinking a black eye.     Dave says coming into a bit of money doesn't explain why he's driving her car and Snip tells him, stumbling and still not looking at him, that she's not too good in city traffic.     `It's country now.'     She holds her breath for three seconds and then lets it slide out. She draws her head inside and tells Dave, low and slow, that she's no good with gears and she's always driven automatics and that he's going to have to teach her how to drive a manual along the way. She holds her breath once again.     A grin cracks his face like a watermelon split.     `Don't you reckon you should've put all that in your ad?'     `I, I didn't want to scare you away. And I didn't want to end up with a driving instructor.'     Dave speeds up the car, scrabbles for the stereo knob and snaps off Joan Sutherland expiring. His questions gallop: why did she have to get out of the city so fast and how much money did she come into and how did she get it and where the hell is she from? Snip tells him again it's a long story and she turns her face back to the speeding green. He says they've got a lot of time to kill. She blunts it by saying she's buggered.     `So should I be scared?'     `Yes.'     Dave laughs and drives faster. Snip examines the puppy energy in his hand as it roams the new buttons and levers of the car, triggering the wipers and water and windows and horn. She laughs at him. He does too. She keeps examining him. The kink of his wrist as it rests on the rim of the steering wheel, the curl of a smile in the corner of his mouth. There's a looseness in him, it's the ease of someone who's been loved very much. He's like a rock that's been hit by the sun for too long and has collected its warmth and shines with it. He's not Snip's type. She's too set in her ways, too crabby and ungenerous and tactless and gruff. She can see the scenario ahead of them: her driving taut at the wheel and shutting him out as soon as she knows what to do with the clutch. She's not his type. She looks at the startling length in his city-boy fingers. Her hands beside his are thick-corded and practical and mannish and blunt.     Dubbo, the designated dot on the map to be slept in, is swept through in almost darkness. They push on to the next town and the next and then suddenly there's the drag of tiredness. The decision to stop. A consensus -- the next dot: `Nevertire'.     `Who'd call a town Nevertire?'     Snip doesn't answer. She's good at that.     `Hey? Who'd call a town that?' DEMURE IN PYJAMAS The pub owner is Ron. Tatts cram his arms. The ink is so dense that from a distance it looks like his skin has been horrifically burnt. Ron's hand stretches out strongly from behind the bar, searching out names.     `Snip, eh?'     `Don't ask.'     Her eyes slip from his and she turns, not wanting talk. Dave asks for a room. The bar hushes. Ron asks what sort and there's the loaded reply into the silence, `Twin beds', `Uh huh', and the room slides back to chat. Dave is bar-talked into pool with the lone local woman and Snip soon retreats to their room and Dave is quickly back too. They decide to unpack the back of the ute, not trusting the town, and the floorspace around them is swiftly rubbled with canvases and boxes and suitcases and swags. The door of their room doesn't lock and the lone chair is tilted under the doorhandle like in some lousy western: them against the world. Big yellow stripes are painted on the walls and each stripe is the thickness of a paintbrush and crooked. Dave and Snip laugh at their wobbly wallpaper, the audacity of it. They lie demure in pyjamas in saggy school campbeds and Dave asks her why she's called Snip and she says it's an old family nickname and leaves it at that. He's waited eight hours after meeting her to ask, it's a record, but she doesn't tell him that. They read a little, and tire, and turn.     There's the sudden suck of a snore.     Snip doesn't mind. She cocks her head and stares at him asleep, neat on his back. Envies the swiftness of his falling, his childlike obedience and trust. He's wearing a T-shirt, cleanly white and crisply ironed.     She's definitely not his type. DAY TWO: THE SUSAN SONTAG MAXIM Pingping pingping pingping ...     The digital watch on Dave's wrist wakes Snip at a quarter-to-six and she likes it -- it's country energy, work energy, her energy. The crumpled clean shirt he takes from his suitcase smells of her childhood.     There's a walloped-down bacon and eggs breakfast at a faded cafe. Butter is pooled golden on thin white toast, it's decadent, the way grandmothers do it. There's a scraping of Vegemite.     `Where are you off to?' asks the waitress, cigarette-lean and once sexy.     `Alice,' Dave says, handing over their money at the till.     `Alice. God, that place. It's full of Aboriginals, lousy with them. We've got enough of them out here, down by the creek. Vegemite village, we call it.'     They take the change with curt politeness and move quickly out.     `I was liking her till then,' says Dave. Snip says nothing. Her lips are rolled in, bloodless and tight.     She takes the keys from Dave's fingers and there's a shiver of something as the two of them touch. She strides away from it. Ahead of them both is her tackling of the clutch. Snip gets into the driver's seat and pushes the car strongly into the frontier space. Dave is concentrating and keen at her ear and his hand is firm over hers on the gearstick.     `Change, move up, clutch, clutch, listen to it, listen to it, that's it, you've got it!'     The ground flattens around them and the sky expands before them and the air is crisp and thin and vigorous and it makes Snip want to slice through it very fast. The woman from the pitstop is still sour in her head.     `The landing sky,' Dave muses. Snip smiles at him. She relaxes and puts the foot down on the accelerator and drives it.     There's a toll of animals as the streetlights and post-boxes and fences drop away. There are death whiffs. Signs: Dismal Creek, Skull Gap, Dead Man's Hill. There's a lizard still on the bitumen with its head to the sun -- thud , the head's gone.     `Damn.'     There's Dave's chatter about his job as a historical archaeologist, chatter about scrabbling through dirt and peeling off wallpaper and pulling away bricks in convict quarters and barracks and mansions and stables and sheds. His talk of the histories in houses, of respecting the layers. His talk of his childhood of private schools and piano tutors and his mates, his talk of his mother and his cricket run-rate. And his father, with only one arm.     `Ten years ago he was driving with his elbow out the window and this truck came along and sideswiped him. Dad stopped and jumped out and ran up to the truckie and asked him if he was all right, and then he looked down at himself -- he didn't have an arm. You know what he's been called ever since?'     `What?'     `Breezy.'     The cabin fills with laughter. Snip keeps volleying questions and deflects when Dave lobs them back.     `I don't remember no childhood.'     She leaves it at that. He laughs, says come on and backhands her soft on the shoulder. She throws another question back and his talk kicks up again. Snip finds men are easy like that, they're always snatching the bait. A collector, that's what she is, an archivist carefully cataloguing talk. She transfers sentence scraps and sketches into the blank pages of her journal at the fag-end of most nights. Curiosity and questions are her shield, she's the listener, the master deflector who's prickly with long slabs of talk. Especially when the subject's herself.     Dave's chatter is rich. On an old girlfriend: `The only thing we had in common was that we loved each other. When we didn't have that, we had nothing.' On relationships: `There are probably only two couples I know who have good ones. My parents, for one. It's so amazingly rare, don't you think?' Snip murmurs and nods and says little and collects, liking a lot what she hears. Dave's good talent. And he doesn't need much of a prompt.     Somewhere in the stretch of the late afternoon there's a pub stop with the locals here and there around the big square counter plumping out the room. The locals all silent, staring, as one, ahead. There's the deep cool hush like a long cool drink as if there's no use wasting energy on all that bangbustle of talk, as if anything worth talking about has been exhausted long ago.     Snip and Dave sit outside with their bums on the gutter. They consume their thin milkbar sandwiches and hurt-cold milkshakes from silver cylinders. The food is childhood-cheap. Dave tells Snip about the `fire-engines', the raspberry sodas he'd have side by side with his father following his tennis lessons every Tuesday afternoon at his father's club. Dave tells Snip about the Milo and white-bread sandwiches his mother ordered the housekeeper to make for him every day at primary school, because he loved them so much. Dave tells Snip about his school asking him to be a priest in his matriculation year, but he loved girls too much.     They laugh.     Dave looks at Snip.     He bins his ball of a sandwich bag.     Snip looks at Dave's hands.     She imagines them at a dig, his fingers sifting through dirt, its silky waterfalls washing over them and she feels a tugging coming over her, a crumbling, and all she thinks of in that moment is the Susan Sontag maxim on love at first sight, that it's a feeling always to be honoured and obeyed.     Snip doesn't have the courage to do a single thing. She knows that fear of humiliation is the enemy of risk but she's been bitten once too often, and too deep.     She stands.     She doesn't look at Dave.     She feels clotted by awkwardness. She hopes he doesn't speak because whatever she says back to him will be jagged and wrong and she hopes he doesn't look because she'll blush. She can feel it, the fierce pull like a hand inside her stomach. The wet.     Snip strides away from him.     For the last four days she has been drunk on the compulsion of getting into the desert, of following the carefully hatched plan: learning to drive the car, dumping the passenger in Alice Springs, stocking up on fuel and then driving deeper on, beyond road signs and bitumen and fuel stops and grog. She has to see Bud, she has to dig him out of his desert lair, and falling for a shiny happy chatterbox of a city boy is a grubbying of the plan and is not what she needs at that moment.     And is definitely not what Bud needs.     Snip walks to the car and gets into the driver's seat and drums her fingers on the roof. She looks back at Dave, unsuspecting. His nose is bent to one side as if the wind has pushed it crooked. She smiles at that. And his face that's all light. She couldn't paint it. She's used to shadows and shy eyes and hiding behind hands. She needs a handle to hold on to, something hidden that will allow her to work her way in. Dave's face is too open. He's not closed over like so many of the youths she seeks out in the towns she ends up in -- youths who are children and then suddenly shut-away men. Snip only paints men. Her journals are crammed with sketches of them. Fragments of noses, an eye, a pierced nipple. A jut of a hipbone, a tatt, a cracked tooth.     It's all wrong. Dave's face is wide and open to the sun and his tallness blares middle-class good health. He's too glowing for someone like Snip. She's thin and bitten from too much life on the run. She hates the eyes always at her and she shies away from them, under her long thick red hair with a straightness that's cut blunt. She hides under men's trousers and blue singlets and white shirts, under duffle-coats and mothy jumpers and clumpy workers' boots and farmers' hats.     Dave is yarning to an old man in the doorway of the pub. A hand is on his hip and the point of an elbow is on the wall, propping him loose. He's soaking up the old man's talk.     Snip honks the horn. She's a lone wolf too set in her ways and it seems so long ago that she was young. Snip made up her mind several years back that she'd never live with a man. She wouldn't wish herself on anyone. She used to think people grew out of their insecurities and fears but she's learnt that's not so, that those faults become concentrated, more insistent as you go.     Snip's a serial sleeper. A man told her once that she's the type of woman men never leave. They don't. She leaves them. She gives them the feeling that any minute she'll be off, so while they're with her they're obsessed. She learnt that one quick. No-one knows her too well, no-one gets that close. She clamps down if they threaten to and hauls herself out. Men satisfy the zing between her thighs, the sudden, savage hunger for a hard quick prick and she arches her back under the weight of them and puts their fingers insistently on her clit. And when it's over, she's off. No number. No forwarding address. A new town, another rupture. Her one constant: anonymity.     Snip's addicted to all that. She always feels strongest when she's by herself, she always paints best when she's alone, with no man and no sex to soften and distract her. Her canvases are muscular and ferocious and enormous and bleak. Some scream the width of small rooms. There's the bewildered comment, again and again, from the men who've looked at them: `Crikey.' (Or `Fuck.')     Dave shakes the old man's hand and steps chuckling into the car. Snip roars it to a start with the tips of her toes, the seat slammed forward as far as it will go. She doesn't look at him.     `What's this?' Dave asks, lifting out Snip's journal that's jutting from a bag jammed between the car seats.     `None of your business,' she says, swerving the car and grabbing the book, and there's a strength in her snatch like the force in a sneeze.     Dave stares. Says nothing. She looks at him. He grins, she does too. And rolls her eyes at herself and jams the journal back. (Continues...) Copyright © 1999 Nikki Gemmell. All rights reserved.