Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Maryrose Cuskelly, Publisher, Setting

‘The Cane’ by Maryrose Cuskelly

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.

Missing teenager

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.”

Small-town intrigue

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.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Maryrose Cuskelly, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘Wedderburn: A True Tale of Blood and Dust’ by Maryrose Cuskelly

Non-fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 304 pages; 2018.

Wedderburn: A True Tale of Blood and Dust by Maryrose Cuskelly is a deeply contemplative and gripping analysis of a small-town murder in Australia written very much in the vein of Helen Garner’s true-crime style (think Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House of Grief).

It focuses on the brutal killing of Peter Lockhart, 78, his second wife Mary, 75, and her son Greg Holmes, 48, at the hands of their neighbour, 64-year-old Ian Jamieson, in rural Wedderburn, in Central Victoria, 215km north-west of Melbourne in October 2014.

Holmes was stabbed more than 25 times on his rural property, which bordered Jamieson’s, while the Lockharts, who lived across the road, were shot multiple times, at close range.

When Jamieson called the emergency services to report his deeds, he told the operator that it was too late for an ambulance because all three were dead. He then phoned a friend, Wally Meddings, and asked him to look after his wife, Janice, “because the police are coming to take me in and I’ll never see the light of day again”. He then phoned his friend Anna McMerrin, telling her:

I’m just ringing to let you know [that I’ve killed my neighbours] and I want you to look after Janice for me. Five years I’ve been putting up with shit from those bastards and I just snapped.

What does it take to provoke a murder?

Cuskelly considers what might have driven Jamieson to carry out such an act. She interviews friends, from both sides of the story, nearby residents and other locals to get a feel, not only for what Jamieson was like as a person, but to find out the impact of the murders on such a small and close-knit community.

What could be behind the rumours I heard that at least some of those living in the community viewed the killings, in particular the murder of Peter Lockhart, as an understandable reaction to extreme provocation? How could anyone, apart from the most callous individual, describe the killing of another person as a favour?

One theory posited that there was a feud involving the use of a track between the properties. Jamieson claimed whenever Lockhart or Holmes drove along the track it kicked up dust that settled in his rainwater tanks and soiled his clean washing on the line. He asked them not to do it, but they ignored him. He suggested that they did it deliberately to get a rise out of  him.

But over the two-and-a-half years that it took Cuskelly to research this book she learned that it wasn’t quite as cut and dried as that.

As she charts the court proceedings in which Jamieson kept changing his mind as to whether to plead guilty or not, sacking his legal representatives in the process and acting petulantly in front of the judge, Cuskelly befriends the victim’s families and discovers there’s always two sides to every story.

The story behind the headlines

This is a book that looks behind the headlines to discover how violence and masculinity and small town rivalries can collide with horrendous and long-term consequences. It takes what appears on the surface to be a simple story about a man “snapping” and shows how it is far more complex than that.

Written in elegant prose, free from sensation and sentiment, Wedderburn: A True Tale of Blood and Dust takes the reader on an astonishing, often emotional, journey that shows the full sweep of human qualities, both good and bad, and highlights how we all have the potential inside of us to carry out brutal acts for which there is no going back.

It’s also an illuminating examination of the convoluted judicial process and how brave and determined the victims of crime (or, in this case, the families of the murder victims) must be to seek justice.

This is a fascinating book, one that has left an impact as I suspect it does on anyone who chooses to read it.

You can read more detail about the actual crime in this piece published in WHO magazine last year.

This is my 1st book for #AWW2019 — I plan to read a minimum of ten books by Australian women this year as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge (note, you don’t need to be Australian to take part; everyone is welcome to participate). Please note ‘Wedderburn’ doesn’t seem to be published outside of Australia (I bought mine in Melbourne during my recent trip), though the audio book is available on Audible and you can order the paperback direct from Australia via Book Depository if you can stomach the expense.