Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 336 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
A few years ago Maryrose Cuskelly wrote a powerful true crime book — Wedderburn: A True Tale of Blood and Dust — about a shocking murder in rural Australia that left three people dead. This deeply contemplative book, free from sensation and sentiment, looked behind the headlines to discover how violence and masculinity and small-town rivalries can collide with fatal consequences.
Many of those themes play out in her debut novel, The Cane, which is set in rural Far North Queensland during the 1970s.
The story focuses on the disappearance of a teenage girl from the fictional sugar cane town of Quala, but this isn’t a whodunnit or a whydunnit or a crime novel in any conventional sense. Instead, this carefully nuanced story explores the impact of the disappearance on the community and shows how suspicion breeds fear and can turn people against one another.
It’s one of the best books I have read all year.
When The Cane opens, 16-year-old Janet McClymont has been missing for weeks. Her bag has been found lying on the edge of a cane field, but there’s no sign of a body.
The crushing season, in which the canefields are set on fire, has been delayed for fear of burning evidence (Janet’s body could have been dumped in a field somewhere) and this lends a sense of urgency to the investigation — the burn can’t be put off forever.
The story is told through multiple narrators from different generations, all written in the third person (with the exception of Arthur, an older man, whose intimate vernacular voice is told in the first person). This device allows the reader to gain an insider’s perspective as we find out how various residents feel about the crime and an outsider’s perspective as we follow the senior constable, Carmel Maitland — a female police officer in a man’s world — who has been seconded from Brisbane to help with the investigation.
But it is mainly through the eyes of schoolgirl Essie Tranter that we see events unfold for Essie is on the cusp of becoming a teenager in a rural community that is misogynistic and racist. Her mother, Connie, has been deeply affected by Janet’s disappearance because Janet was her babysitter and was walking to her place the evening she disappeared. Connie feels the police aren’t doing enough to find her.
“You lot should be out there.” She jerks her head in a gesture that takes in the land beyond the town. “The McClymonts can’t tell you anything more than they’ve already told the other officers. There has to be dozens of creeks and dams that no one’s dragged yet.”
The story highlights how rumour and suspicion thrive in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business and where being different marks you as a potential suspect.
Local school teacher Eamonn Sullivan, with his “long red hair and cheesecloth tunics”, who is secretly handing out The Little Red Schoolbook, a controversial banned book, is in the frame. So, too, is Joe Cassar, Janet’s former boyfriend, a quietly spoken brown-skinned Grade 12 student whose mum is a Torres Strait Islander.
There is casual racism everywhere and the men in the pub all have theories and opinions about what happened to Janet and most of it is ugly. The children’s activities are curtailed and they must stay close and in sight at all times for fear they will go missing too.
Adding to this sense of fear is the knowledge that another teenage girl, Cathy Creadie, went missing 10 years ago. She disappeared while swimming off the rocks at a local beach, her body washing up several days later, and no one is quite sure whether her terrible bruising was caused before or after her death.
Malevolent fields of cane
In this claustrophobic atmosphere, the humid weather with “its close, damp heat” acts as an extra form of irritation and frustration, while the landscape — those tall and brooding canefields — is like a character in its own right.
Since Janet’s disappearance, Connie avoids lingering by the fields that surround the house. But in fact, from the time she married Cam thirteen years ago and came to live with him on the farm, the cane has made her feel uneasy, hemmed in, claustrophobic. Leery of its burgeoning growth, its thick stalks and impenetrability, the way the fields carpet the landscape in a thick green sameness, she has always had the sense of something lurking within it, hidden and malevolent
The pacing of The Cane is slow and measured, building to a powerful climax.
It’s a hugely evocative and thought-provoking read and one that the author says is based on several unsolved abductions and murders of children and young women that occurred in Queensland in the 1970s. It’s a gut-wrenching and powerful indictment of a society that views females as second-class citizens.
So much of the misogyny that tumbles off these pages feels familiar from my own childhood and teenage years growing up in a small town. I’d like to think things have changed.
Kudos to Maryrose Cuskelly for articulating it all so well and for crafting an exceptional novel that deserves a wide audience.