Wrack James Bradley Essay

An archeologist searches for a Portuguese shipwreck in this young award-winning Australian writer’s American debut. Among the sand dunes in a remote part of New South Wales, David Norfolk searches for remnants of a Portuguese sailing ship that, according to shadowy evidence, ran aground there in the early 16th century. Since history gives most of the credit for European discovery of Australia to the English, finding the ship would be a significant event, insuring a boost to Norfolk’s floundering career. Bradley intercuts Norfolk’s actions with accounts of early Portuguese and Spanish rivalries south of the equator, and with tales of early map-making—arguably the most entertaining part of the book. Norfolk’s quest seems minor by comparison, as does the man himself. With his funding run out, he discovers a corpse on the last days of his dig. The police agree that he’s stumbled upon a murder, but it’s a 50-year-old one, and they aren—t much interested. Meanwhile, up the beach a way, in a shack without running water, an old man named Kurt Seligmann is dying. Norfolk suspects that Seligmann knows the secret of the murder—and that it’s tied to the shipwreck. He enlists a friend, a woman physician who happens to love him, to care for Seligmann in his final days, and slowly Seligmann’s story emerges. It’s the story of The English Patient, and told in the same manner: Seligmann and a friend sought the shipwreck, but WWII intervened. Seligmann also had a passionate affair with his friend’s wife. Yes, yes, but where is the shipwreck? In the final scenes, Norfolk learns that Seligmann, in a terrible rage over the loss both of his friend and his lover, burned it. And thus does Bradley offer the reader a heavy-handed ending to an overwrought, imitative story. Bradley is talented, but this outing, masquerading as high literature, is plain unoriginal.


Wrack by James Bradley is prose fiction text within the Discovery Area of Study in the 2015 HSC English Standard and Advanced courses.


Wrack by James Bradley


While searching for the wreck of a Portuguese ship which could rewrite the history of Australia, archaeologist David Norfolk stumbles upon a corpse buried fifty years before. Determined to understand its connection to the ship, David uncovers a story of obsession, secrets and sexual passion.

Syllabus Annotations

This Area of Study requires students to explore the ways in which the concept of discovery is represented in and through texts.

Discovery can encompass the experience of discovering something for the first time or rediscovering something that has been lost, forgotten or concealed. Discoveries can be sudden and unexpected, or they can emerge from a process of deliberate and careful planning evoked by curiosity, necessity or wonder. Discoveries can be fresh and intensely meaningful in ways that may be emotional, creative, intellectual, physical and spiritual. They can also be confronting and provocative. They can lead us to new worlds and values, stimulate new ideas, and enable us to speculate about future possibilities. Discoveries and discovering can offer new understandings and renewed perceptions of ourselves and others.

An individual’s discoveries and their process of discovering can vary according to personal, cultural, historical and social contexts and values. The impact of these discoveries can be far‑reaching and transformative for the individual and for broader society. Discoveries may be questioned or challenged when viewed from different perspectives and their worth may be reassessed over time. The ramifications of particular discoveries may differ for individuals and their worlds.

By exploring the concept of discovery, students can understand how texts have the potential to affirm or challenge individuals’ or more widely-held assumptions and beliefs about aspects of human experience and the world. Through composing and responding to a wide range of texts, students may make discoveries about people, relationships, societies, places and events and generate new ideas. By synthesising perspectives, students may deepen their understanding of the concept of discovery. Students consider the ways composers may invite them to experience discovery through their texts and explore how the process of discovering is represented using a variety of language modes, forms and features.

The following annotations are based on the criteria for selection of texts appropriate for study for the Higher School Certificate.


  • Published in 1997, Wrack addresses questions about the nature of history and the ‘discovery’ of Australia. The narrative draws together disparate threads – accounts of the semi-mythical ‘Mahogany Ship’, romantic relationships and a murder mystery.
  • It is a novel of history and discovery on several levels and deals with early European exploration of the continent, as well as the mystery surrounding the characters and the connections between them.
  • Wrack was the debut novel of leading Australian author and critic James Bradley. It won the Fellowship of Australian Writers Literature Award and the Kathleen Mitchell Literary Award, and was short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book (SE Asia and Pacific Region).


  • Students will investigate reports and legends of the Portuguese ship supposedly wrecked on the southern coast of Australia, which lies at the heart of the novel’s plot. They will hypothesise about the ways that such discoveries can generate alternative views of history.
  • Students will find engaging the novel’s mystery and follow the clues and discoveries to their conclusion.
  • Students will have opportunities to explore the ways that discoveries about people’s characters and pasts can affect relationships.


  • Study of the novel will provide opportunities to address the concept of discovery across a range of historical and fictional contexts.
  • Students could examine the use of exposition, description and evocative imagery to splice together different literary genres in the novel.
  • Wrack invites comparison with other texts that deal with European exploration of the New World and archaeological and historical research, and with examples of historical fiction and crime writing in particular.





Please note the Syllabus Descriptions and Syllabus Annotations components of this page have been replicated from the Board of Studies, Testing and Educational Standards website. The PDF document of the HSC Annotations can be found here. The main reason any information has been replicated has been to make it easier for NSW HSC students to access information on this text.

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