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Nikki Gemmell

 In a literary sense, it's a good time to be Nikki Gemmell.  Back home, temporarily, from her London base, the Wollongong-born author  is on tour, having first been a guest at the recent Melbourne Writers Festival  and then on a media swing through Sydney, Alice Springs and Darwin. And  she has just signed up on $500,000 worth of overseas interest in her books.

Her debut novel Shiver, released last year, is to become a Roger (Crash Palace) Donaldson-overseen feature film - the first to be shot in Antarctica. Her second, the just-released Cleave (Random House), already has been received well enough to justify its publisher's enthusiasm. And the third novel is almost finished and is being sought by US and European markets.

Gemmell then is pretty hot, a significant comer in an Oz lit looking for fresh voices. And it doesn't hurt that she is a sassy, photogenic thirtysomething with an endearing directness. She's earned XYZ gen street cred from her years as Triple J's newsreader, racked up invaluable experience points as a sometime actor, waiter and shop assistant, and received suitable academic imprimatur from her University of Technology, Sydney, Masters of Writing.

Her books explore the landscape, both physical and emotional. The former are at their most threatening, whether the glacial iciness of the coldest continent or the unforgiving aridity of the Outback - and she captures both vividly, in all their alien majesty and majestic alienation. But her real expedition is more internal, excavating the interior wastelands of love and loss, of secrets and self-realisation.

She does this with minimal compromise and sentimentality. There's nothing wimpish about her characters or her world view. Her women are strong, not easily swayed and lustily self-sufficient _ in a way, it's a satiric subversion of the Boy's Own On The Road hero.

Duality is the key: it's the attraction of ambivalence, of fleeing that which most attracts. In context, "cleave" can mean tearing asunder or adhering together. Both meanings are apt for the hero Snip, a suspicious survivor whose tough-gal modus is part inner steel, part actor's steal. Her background is one of dysfunction and dark secrets; abducted by her estranged father and brought up for a time as a boy "on the swag", she straddles the worlds of suburban Australia and Aboriginality. Reconciliation is the drive, with land, the self and the past.

There's still a tendency towards the dew-eyed and idealistically correct, but mostly Gemmell's vision is briskly dispassionate and irrigatingly intimate. Cleave is not flawless but it is pretty damned polished: its many facets glint with acerbic insight and the occasional glimpse of the jeweller's awl only adds to the authenticity. Shiver was an honest first novel, but its love story strayed into the cloying at times. In Cleave, Gemmell has shown that her potential will be realised. She deserves serious respect.

This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 1998

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