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‘The Rúin’ by Dervla McTiernan

Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 380 pages; 2018.

Dervla McTiernan’s The Rúin is an excellent police procedural set in Galway, Ireland. This is the first in the DI Cormac Reilly series, which continues with The Scholar (published in 2019) and The Good Turn (2020).

Dead from a drug overdose

In this debut, it’s 1993 and rookie Garda Cormac Reilly is called out to a decrepit Georgian manor house where Hilaria Blake, a known alcoholic, lies dead in her bed from a heroin overdose. Her two children, 15-year-old Maude and 5-year-old Jack, show signs of neglect. The boy, in particular, is covered in unexplained bruises. There’s not much Reilly can do, except take the children to the hospital and let social services take over.

Fast forward 20 years and Reilly has left his high-flying career as a detective in Dublin and is about to take up a new post in Galway so that he can be with his partner, Emma, a successful academic.

But easing into a new police station isn’t straightforward. Someone is spreading nasty rumours about him and he’s not sure who to trust.

Complications arise when the Blake death and those two neglected children return to haunt him. Jack, now an adult, has been found dead in the River Corrib. The police claim it’s suicide, but Jack’s girlfriend, a promising young surgeon, begs to differ. Yes, the pair had argued over an unwanted pregnancy, but Aisling doesn’t believe that would be enough for Jack to want to deliberately drown himself.

When Maude returns to Ireland after having lived on a remote sheep station in Western Australia for most of her adult life, there is pressure on Reilly to interrogate her over the death of both her mother and her brother. There’s a hidden agenda going on and trying to unravel it is the nub of this complex but compelling novel, which is written with great sensitivity and humanity.

Dual narrative

The narrative, which switches between Aisling and Cormac’s point of view, moves things along at a clip and gives the reader a well rounded view of events, both past and present.

And while the characters in The Rúin are all flawed and deeply human, the two leads are “good eggs” who you want to cheer on. However, things do stray into caricature towards the end when the culprit is revealed and his behaviour escalates into over-the-top shenanigans.

And while I guessed the “solution” pretty early on, this is a well-plotted, deftly written police procedural about family secrets, police corruption, child abuse and how the past and present can collide in disturbing ways.

The Rúin has won numerous awards, including the 2019 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Novel, the 2019 Davitt Award and the 2019 Barry Award for Best Original Paperback, and been shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards, the Irish Book Awards and the Kate O’Brien Award.

Cathy at 746 Books also enjoyed this one.

This is my 9th book for #AWW2021 and my 9th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it last year. I’m not sure I’m going to succeed unless I read a LOT over the next 6 weeks.

And because the author lives in Perth (where she emigrated with her family after the Global Financial Crash), this book also qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

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‘Revenge: Murder in Three Parts’ by S.L. Lim

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transit Lounge; 199 pages; 2020.

Despite the title, S.L. Lim’s Revenge: Murder in Three Parts is not a crime novel. Instead, it’s a beguiling tale of a Malaysian woman who finds herself on the wrong side of the gender divide, constantly overlooked by her parents in favour of her older brother, who is given all the advantages and manages to make something of himself, first in the UK, then later in Australia.

As the only daughter, Yannie must give up any hope of attending university (despite being an excellent student), to help run the family’s corner store. Later, after her parents retire, she reinvents herself as a personal tutor to pay the bills and support them in their old age.

It’s not until her mother’s death that she finally has the opportunity to go abroad to visit her brother and his family in Sydney, Australia, and it is this change of scenery that gives Yannie pause to reflect.

Outwardly, Yannie is passive, polite and pliable, but inwardly she’s full of rage, (understandably) angry at the opportunities denied to her. Her rich interior life, in which she imagines living with Shuying, her schoolgirl crush, is the only thing that seems to sustain her.

Her life, dictated by others close to her (and society in general) means that she has not been able to follow her dreams, nor live her most authentic life. Her physical impoverishment has only been matched by her spiritual impoverishment.

When she moves in with her brother Shan, she begins to see the abuse he once doled out to her as a child (and which her parents ignored) has now manifested in coercive control of his wife and teenage daughter, with occasional temper tantrums and angry outbursts that everyone seems to shrug off as if they never happened.

During her stay, Yannie grows close to both her sister-in-law Evelyn and niece Kat, whom she tutors, but can’t quite get her head around the fact that both have become beholden not only to her psychopathic brother but the money he earns and the extravagant lifestyle which he provides them.

When a seemingly innocuous opportunity for revenge presents itself, Yannie grabs it — but the consequences aren’t quite what one would expect.

Revenge: Murder in Three Parts is a powerful story about women’s inequality, domestic abuse, impoverishment and the struggle to live your most authentic life. And it asks important questions about revenge, guilt — and redemption.

For other reviews of this book, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers and Kate’s review at Booksaremyfavouriteand best.

Revenge: Murder in Three Parts has been shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize.

I read this one as part of my attempt to read all the book’s on this year’s Stella Prize shortlist. it is also my 8th book for #AWW2021.  

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‘Sheerwater’ by Leah Swann

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 308 pages; 2020.

Sheerwater by Leah Swann is one of those rare treats of a novel that marries beautiful prose with wonderfully realised characters and then combines this with a compelling, fast-paced plot and lots of thought-provoking current issues to lend it relevance.

It’s probably best described as a literary crime novel, though it also ticks boxes for suspense and psychological thriller, too.

The third-person narrative spans three tense days and culminates in a shocking, yet totally credible ending, the sort that could have been lifted from today’s news. I came away from it reeling and I have been thinking about it ever since.

An eventful drive

The story is framed around Ava, a young woman, who has quit her job and left her husband. With two young children, Max and Teddy, in tow, she makes a long drive towards the coast, where she plans to begin a new life in a little town called Sheerwater, somewhere off the Great Ocean Road.

But en route Ava witnesses something that will thwart her plans: she sees a light plane go down in a field and decides to stop and help. Imploring her boys to remain in the car with their pet dog, Winks, for company, she attends the accident scene, but when she returns to the car, having done all she could to help the injured, she discovers that her boys are gone. Only the dog remains.

The police are called and an investigation ensues. The boys’ father is number one suspect, but how did he know Ava’s whereabouts? And why is she on the run from him?

Multiple points of view

While the story is largely told from Ava’s point of view, we also get to hear from her husband, Laurence, and her son, Max, in standalone chapters written from their individual perspectives. This is a clever device because it not only lets us see what happens to the boys and gives us some background on Ava’s marriage, it also makes the reader question who is telling the truth? Which perspective is correct?

Max’s voice is particularly well done because we get to see the complexities of the scary adult world through a sensitive nine-year-old boy’s eyes. It is, by turns, warm and tender, heart rending and brave. I can’t be the only reader who didn’t want to step into the pages to give him a protective hug.

The ending, which draws together this trio of narrative threads, is unexpectedly shocking.

Sheerwater is a truly memorable read. It’s devastating but beautiful, too, and I’m hoping this debut author turns her hand to something else soon. If it is half as good as this novel, I will be clamouring to read it.

Sue at Whispering Gums has reviewed this one, too.

About the author¹: Leah Swann is the award-winning author of the short story collection Bearings, shortlisted for the Dobbie Award, and the middle-grade fantasy series Irina: The Trilogy. Her short fiction and poetry has been published in numerous literary magazines, and she works as a journalist and speech-writer. Sheerwater is her debut novel. Leah lives in Melbourne with her family.   (1. Source: Harper Collins website.)

Where to buy: Currently only available in Australia and New Zealand.

This is my 9th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here. It is also my 7th book for #AWW2021.  

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‘The Family Doctor’ by Debra Oswald

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 368 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When I repatriated to Australia in June 2019 (after almost 21 years living in the UK), one of the first things that struck me was the number of domestic violence incidents, most of them homicides, in the news. This came to a head in February last year with the shocking and distressing case of Hannah Clarke, who was burned to death in the family car with her three young children, after her estranged husband set fire to the vehicle.

But despite the vital national conversation that ensued about the ways in which women are abused (physically and psychologically) in the home, it’s still clear that the media views such cases as individual events rather than as a systemic problem (something highlighted by this recent study published in The Conversation) — and nothing has changed to make women safer.

More recently, the treatment of women in the workplace has also come to a head, with disturbing revelations about sexual misconduct, including rape, in Parliament House (see this Wiki article for a good summary).

Our own Prime Minister seems incapable of understanding the extent of the problem. He says he is listening to Australian women, but actions speak louder the words. (He refused to meet with organisers of last week’s rally outside Parliament citing “security reasons”, which is ironic, given that it is the lack of safe spaces that was the crux of the whole Women’s March 4 Justice in the first place.) This curated letters page in the Sydney Morning Herald, addressed to the PM, highlights how deeply entrenched this issue is in Australian society.

I mention all this because it is important context for Debra Oswald’s latest novel, The Family Doctor, which puts domestic violence firmly in the centre of its compelling, page-turning plot. In fact, the book’s confronting subject matter — in which a family GP decides to take the law into her own hands — couldn’t be more timely. I ate this book up in a couple of days and came away from it having gone through ALL THE EMOTIONS from laughter and sadness through to a slow-burning righteous fury.

A crime novel with a difference

At its most basic level, The Family Doctor is a crime novel that strides two fences: on one side, it looks at a series of domestic violence cases from the victim’s point of view; and on the other it looks at what happens when a normal law-abiding citizen, infuriated by the abuse she sees on a daily basis, decides to dole out her own form of justice. But it’s also a book about female friendship, romance, the importance of family and wider societal issues, including toxic masculinity, support services, policing and the court system.

When the story opens, Paula Kaczmarek, a suburban GP, has opened her home to Stacey, an old school friend, and her two young children who are on the run from an abusive, estranged husband. One day Paula returns home to find the trio have been murdered. As someone used to helping others, she finds it difficult to come to terms with the fact that she couldn’t protect one of her dearest friends when she needed it most. It is this sense of guilt and her slow-burning anger that propels Paula to do more to help other women she believes are being abused in the home.

Later, when patient Rochelle Ferguson brings her ill six-year-old boy into the surgery for treatment, Paula notices Rochelle’s suspicious bruises and her son’s heightened anxiety. Rochelle admits that she is scared of her husband and that he hurts her, but she can’t leave for fear that will escalate the violence and put her son in danger. So when the husband turns up at the surgery a few days later with an injured hand demanding to see a doctor, Paula ushers him into her consulting room and makes a spur-of-the-moment decision that could have career-ending repercussions.

I can’t say much more than that because I don’t wish to spoil the plot, but what follows is a heart-hammering ride that explores a host of thought-provoking ethical issues including whether it is ever justifiable to take the law into your own hands. Is it permissable, for instance, to be proactive in order to prevent a likely tragedy than simply reacting to the aftermath even if that means you have to do something illegal? Can you ever justify taking harmful action if such action will stop more people being harmed? Where do you draw the line between playing God and letting events unfold naturally?

Murder trial

Interleaved with Paula’s storyline is that of her friend, Anita, a seasoned court reporter, who has been working on a feature article about the failure of the justice system to protect women (and children) killed by men.

This issue is demonstrated very clearly in a trial she is asked to cover in which a super-confident, good looking 36-year-old man is accused of murdering his girlfriend. He is said to have pushed her off a motorway overpass into oncoming traffic when she was fleeing him, but he claims she was mentally unbalanced and had committed suicide. He pleads not guilty.

As part of her coverage of this disturbing case, Anita befriends Detective Rohan Mehta, who is part of the prosecuting team, and becomes unexpectedly romantically involved with him. This relationship serves as an important message in the book: not all men are bad; some even go out of their way to help women and try to make the world safer for everyone.

The strength of this book lies in the ways in which it highlights, from multiple viewpoints and situations, what happens when the system continually fails the people it should be helping. Oswald, who writes with insight and care, shows the patterns of behaviour, the coercion, the power and the fear that is wielded by malevolent men to control the women in their lives, and she looks at the heartbreaking impact on the victims and their families.

This is a gripping story, never showy or sentimental, but brutally honest on all accounts, whether in its depiction of male violence or the ways in which women are conditioned to care for others or become subservient. Her cast of characters are all-too real, if deeply flawed, and their reactions and behaviours entirely credible.

Powerful, heart-rending and topical, The Family Doctor is the kind of novel that stays with you long after the final page. It deserves a wide readership.

About the author¹:  Debra Oswald is a playwright, screenwriter and novelist. She is a two-time winner of the NSW Premier’s Literary Award and author of the novels Useful (2015) and The Whole Bright Year (2018). She was creator/head writer of the first five seasons of successful TV series Offspring. Her stage plays have been performed around the world and published by Currency Press. Her television credits include award-winning episodes of Police RescuePalace of DreamsThe Secret Life of UsSweet and Sour and Bananas in Pyjamas. Debra has written three Aussie Bites books for kids and six children’s novels. She has been a storyteller on stage at Story Club and will perform her one-woman show, Is There Something Wrong With That Lady?, in 2021.  (1. Source: Allen & Unwin website.)

Where to buy: Currently only available in Australia.

If you liked this book, you might also like:

‘An Isolated Incident’ by Emily Maguire 
A literary crime novel that explores the outfall of one young woman’s murder on her family and the local community in rural Australia.

This is my 8th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here. It is also my 6th book for #AWW2021.  

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‘The Husband Poisoner’ by Tanya Bretherton

Non-fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 235 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In recent years Tanya Bretherton has made a name for herself as a chronicler of historical true crime. I’ve read a couple of her books now — The Suitcase Baby (2018) and  The Killing Streets (2020) — and found them interesting and well written.

In this new book, The Husband Poisoner, she turns her forensic lens towards women who killed in post-World War II Sydney using poison as their “weapon” of choice.

The title is a bit of a misnomer though because the cases that feature in this book aren’t solely focused on women who killed their husbands. Caroline Grills, for instance, did away with her stepmother, a family friend, her brother and his wife!

The thallium wave

Written narrative non-fiction style, Bretherton weaves her true crime tales with sociological insights and shows how poisoning was “fashionable” in the 1950s because it was undetectable. The poison used, thallium,  had no smell and was tasteless, so could be added to meals or a cup of tea and the person who consumed it would be none the wiser. And it was readily available as an over-the-counter poison designed to kill rats.

Between March 1952 and April 1953, ten deaths and forty-six hospital admissions [in Sydney] were attributed to thallium. It was an alarming statistic given exposure to thallium could only be traced to one source — the product known as Thall-Rat.

The author focuses on two specific NSW cases — Yvonne Fletcher, who poisoned two husbands, one after the other, and the aforementioned Caroline Grills —  before turning her attention towards the two police detectives who made a name for themselves solving these problematic crimes.

I say “problematic” because detecting the use of poison was difficult, and murders could be “made to look like something else entirely” so that “no one even realised that a crime had been committed”. For example, poor Yvonne Fletcher’s first husband died an agonising death that stretched over years — doctors put his poor health down to various issues, including “nervous tension and anxiety”, but no one suspected his wife was adding rat poison to his food!

The inclusion of old recipes at the end of each chapter, such as split pea soup and jam roly-poly (which come from the author’s own family cookbook), hammers home the point that this crime was wholly domestic and more often than not carried out by women, who, during the 1950s, spent their lives in the kitchen. This made it even easier for a disgruntled woman to get rid of a family member in such a deadly but seemingly innocuous manner.

Police corruption

If I was to fault the book in any way it is the creative element in which conversations and feelings are “invented” in the interests of telling a good story. This is the journalist in me kicking back against this style of writing which tends to blur fact and fiction. But I understand why the author has taken this approach: it makes the narrative more compelling and it’s easier to identify (and empathise) with characters.

The segue into the police investigation near the end of the book feels slightly clunky, too, almost as if it has been added as an afterthought. That said, it’s an intriguing look at the way in which NSW Detectives Fergusson and Krahe pinpointed the role of thallium in various murders and worked out an approach to catch the killers. Such an approach, while effective, was not without its own set of ethical problems. The pair were later recognised as “key figures in the institutionalised corruption of the NSW police force from the 1940s through to the 1970s”.

The detectives postulated that thallium killing was different to other kinds of killing. It was not violent, at least in the traditional sense. Thallium murderers did not usually seek to strike one devastating blow; it was not liked taking aim and firing a weapon into lethal target zones like the brain or the heart. Thallium killers were capable of patiently exploiting the poison’s manifold secrets. Thallium was a slow burn, and killing with it required a certain kind of disposition: deceitful. In turn, efforts to catch these criminals required a certain kind of investigation: deceitful.

The Husband Poisoner is a riveting expose of the darker side of Australian life after the Second World War.  As well as looking at a series of disturbing murders, it puts things into context by providing a fascinating account of post-war social change. It’s by turns macabre and sinister, eye-opening and, dare I say it, blackly comic.

Shelleyrae at Book’d Out has reviewed this one too.

About the author¹:  Tanya Bretherton has a PhD in sociology with special interests in narrative life history and social history. She has published in the academic and public sphere for 20 years and worked as a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sydney for 15 years. Dr Bretherton’s specialty is converting detailed research into thought-provoking works which are accessible to a general readership. Currently she works as a freelance researcher and writer. Her first book, The Suitcase Baby, was shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award, the Danger Prize and the Waverley Library ‘Nib’ Award. Her second book The Suicide Bride was shortlisted for the Danger Prize and in 2020 she won the Danger Prize for The Killing Streets.  (1. Source: Hachette Australia website.)

Where to buy: The book has been published in Australia in both paperback and ebook editions; in the UK and US it is available in ebook format only.

If you liked this book, you might also like:

‘My Mother, A Serial Killer’ by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans 
This book is about Dulcie Bodsworth, a community-minded wife and mother, who murdered her husband in the 1950s, then killed two other men she knew. A talented cook and caterer, her poison of choice was arsenic.

This is my 7th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here. It is also my 5th book for #AWW2021.  

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‘The Second Son’ by Loraine Peck

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 447 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Loraine Peck’s debut, The Second Son, is a gangland crime novel set in Sydney’s western suburbs.

The story is framed around a married couple, Johnny and Amy Novak, who are members of an organised crime family headed by Milan Novak, a Croatian immigrant. Amy is particularly keen to shield their young son, Sasha, from the family “business”, which involves running a string of fish’n chip shops as a front for nefarious activities including money laundering and drug trafficking.

The novel begins with the execution-style murder of Johnny’s beloved older brother, Ivan, who is fatally shot one dark evening while doing that most mundane (and unglamorous) of domestic duties: putting out the bins. The hitman is thought to be one of the gang’s Serbian rivals. Revenge is on everyone’s mind and police fear this will be the start of an ongoing tit-for-tat gangland war.

Johnny, who is the second son of the title, needs to prove himself worthy of filling the power vacuum created by Ivan’s death. To avenge his brother and win the trust and respect of his father, he comes up with a plan to carry out a daring heist to steal the Serb’s planned shipment of ecstasy said to be worth $3 million.

But there are complications. Amy, who was warned by her comfortably middle-class parents not to marry Johnny, wants a different life. She sees the violence and the bloodshed, and fears for her son’s future. When their own family home is shot at, she moves out and then issues an ultimatum to her husband: leave this life of crime behind and start afresh on the NSW north coast.

Johnny’s loyalties are torn: he loves his wife and son, but he also knows that he can’t risk the wrath of his father, nor the gangland criminals in his orbit. Whatever decision he makes will have far-reaching, perhaps even deadly, consequences…

Action-packed drama

The Second Son is an action-packed drama that combines the all-male world of violent crime with the moral and ethical dilemmas this creates for the women they have married. For instance, how can you live your life like a normal couple when you know your husband is a criminal even if you don’t know the depth or the details of the crime? Can you simply turn a blind eye, lie to your friends and then hope that none of the fallout will ever effect you?

Told in the first person from both Johnny and Amy’s points of view, Peck explores how these dilemmas affect both parties. Their narratives are told in separate chapters (which are headed “Johnny” or “Amy” accordingly), which helps provide a glimpse of their thought processes and their values, but unfortunately, their voices are so similar (and the present tense so wearing) that the structure didn’t really work for me. I also struggled to believe the male voice, which was too nuanced and too “nice”, and found Amy’s voice repetitive.

The book held the promise of being an intriguing character-led story, but it dissolved into a plot-driven one that didn’t really sustain my interest. I suspect that’s because I simply didn’t care about the characters, but also because the momentum sags in the middle, but picks up again towards the end.

Perhaps I have watched one too many Underbelly episodes or true crime documentaries, or read too many Mafiosa crime novels, but this story lacked the hard-hitting noirish edge I would expect from a novel about organised crime. It didn’t feel claustrophobic or dark enough; there always felt like there was the possibility of escape for the characters — indeed, this is what Amy dreams of all the time — and yet anyone who knows anything about this world knows that that is not possible. There is no escape — except death.

That said, The Second Son would make an excellent film or TV series. It asks important questions about love, loss and loyalty within an organised crime family. And it explores a topic rarely, if ever discussed, in Australian fiction: the ways in which grudges and resentments from the 1990s Balkan civil war continue on the streets of Sydney.

Judging by all the glowing five-star reviews online, I’m a little out of step with this one. For a more positive take, please see Shellyrae’s review at Book’d Out.

About the author¹: Loraine Peck started her career as a portrait painter and magician’s assistant in Sydney. After being sawn in half one too many times, she switched to dealing blackjack on the Gold Coast. Bartending and slinging lobsters in the US lead to a sales job in the movie industry before she was propelled into a career in marketing in Australia, the Middle East, Asia and the US. Consumed by a desire to write crime thrillers, she decided to stop everything and do a writing course—to learn how to write the kind of book she loves to read. (1. Source: Text Publishing website.)

Where to buy: Currently only available in Australia and New Zealand.

This is my 6th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here. It is also my 4th book for #AWW2021.  

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‘Ash Mountain’ by Helen Fitzgerald

Fiction – paperback; Affirm Press; 270 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Glasgow-based Australian writer Helen Fitzgerald does a nice line in dark, edgy fiction. I’ve read six of her novels and they have all been wildly entertaining if somewhat over-the-top. I quite like them as “palette cleansers” because they are so different to anything else out there.

Ash Mountain, which was published in the UK by Orenda Books last year and has just been published in Australia by Affirm Press, is cut from a similar cloth — with one important difference: this is her first novel to be set exclusively in Australia.

It’s billed as a “disaster thriller” because the storyline revolves around a terrifying bushfire and explores events leading up to the tragedy and what happens on the actual day of the fire.

I must admit that about half-way through I wondered whether this book could actually be described as Southern Cross crime, because I was struggling to find the crime in it. It’s there though, hidden in the dark folds of the time-hopping narrative, if you look closely enough. But don’t expect it to tick all the boxes that you might normally associate with the genre. It’s actually more litfic than crimefic.

In the UK the book is published by Orenda Books

Small town life

Set in a small town north of Melbourne, Ash Mountain revolves around a single mother, Fran, who has returned to the country after many years away to look after her bed-ridden father, the victim of a stroke, in the family home.

She has two children by two different fathers: 29-year-old Dante, whom she had when she was a teenager at school following her first sexual experience, and 16-year-old Vonny, whose father is indigenous. She cares for both very much and has quite a healthy, frank and empathetic relationship with both.

The narrative, which is comprised largely of flashbacks spanning a period of 30 years, shines a light on what it is like to grow up in a claustrophobic, predominantly Catholic community in rural Victoria, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, isn’t afraid to cast judgement and where tensions either fester or explode in the form of dust-ups in the pub or local swimming pool.

Fran thought she had escaped all that, but moving back after two decades in Melbourne has come somewhat of a shock. She can’t shake the feeling that she’s still at school, being stared at because she’s 15 and pregnant, or being pitied because her glamourous Italian mother has died prematurely in a car accident.

The third-person narrative swings between school life three decades ago and the current day, and is largely told from Fran’s perspective. It jumps around a lot, which can be disorientating for the reader. Occasionally I had trouble keeping up with what was going on. But slowly, once I understood the dynamics of the family and realised FitzGerald was drip-feeding information for me to process, it began to make much more sense and I found it difficult to put down.

Raging bushfire

The natural disaster at the heart of Ash Mountain is a raging bush fire on Australia Day (or Invasion Day, as Fran calls it throughout). It’s easy to think that this is what the book is about — indeed, it features some heart-hammering moments and is filled with terrifying imagery, such as when Fran discovers some burnt out cars, complete with bodies inside, parked in what should have been a place of safety — but it’s more subtle than that. If you read closely enough you will see that the fire brings out the best — and worst — in people, but it also exposes the town’s deep secrets, which have festered unchallenged for decades.

It’s difficult to pigeonhole this novel into any single category. This author used to be classified as “intelligent chick lit” and there’s no doubt it features her blackly comic take on the world, complete with her trademark snark, bad language and whip-smart dialogue, but Ash Mountain feels more mature than anything else she’s written.

I wasn’t sure I liked it to begin with, but the “mystery” at its heart, its brilliant cast of characters and the subtle social commentary running throughout made this an absorbing read, and one that will linger in my mind for a long time to come.

In her afterword, the author claims it was optioned for TV before the book was written. She struggled with the screenplay and decided she needed to put it in prose first. I’m glad she did.

About the author¹: Helen FitzGerald is the bestselling author of 10 adult and young adult thrillers, including The Donor (2011) and The Cry (2013), which was longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, and is now a major drama for BBC1. Helen worked as a criminal justice social worker for more than 15 years. She grew up in Kilmore, Victoria, Australia. She now lives in Glasgow with her husband. (1. Source: Affirm Press website)

Where to buy: This book is widely available in most territories.

This is my 3rd book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021, a month-long celebration of crime writing by authors from Australia and New Zealand. You can find out more by visiting my Southern Cross Crime Month page. It is also my 3rd book for #AWW2021.  

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Susan Johnson

‘From Where I Fell’ by Susan Johnson

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 352 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I do love a good epistolary novel, and this new one by Australian writer Susan Johnson is a good one!

From Where I Fell is composed of a year-long exchange of emails between two women on opposite sides of the planet whose correspondence is sometimes fraught but always frank.

It begins when Sydney-based Pamela Robinson emails her ex-husband in Paris, only to discover she’s got the right name but used the wrong email address: her heartfelt missive has landed in the inbox of New York-based teacher Chrisanthi Woods by accident. What follows is a strange and wonderful correspondence in which two women, at different stages of their lives, develop an online friendship free of the burden of up-close-and-personal contact.

The two are polar opposites in temperament and outlook. Newly divorced Pamela is self-obsessed and nursing old wounds, struggling to raise three boys alone in strained financial circumstances having repatriated to Australia after living in France for many years, while Chris, married but child-free, is opinionated and independent, a woman who does everything to help others but rarely gets the credit. One is well travelled and supposedly worldly-wise, the other has lived in the same city her whole life.

An unlikely friendship

Over the course of their correspondence, the women share confidences and problems, offer moral support and encouragement to each other, but occasionally one offends the other and long silences ensue.

Are you there?
From:
Pamela Robinson
To:
Chris Woods
Hi Chris,

Just wondering if you’ve forgiven me. I miss your emails.

With love,
Pamela

Through their emails, we come to understand the circumstances of each character’s day-to-day existence, their struggles and triumphs, their ups and downs and everything in between. We see how they evolve over time, how they adjust to change and move on with their lives.

And we also begin to recognise their personality quirks — Pamela’s constant need to talk about herself, to moan and complain, and Chris’s tendency to cut her down to size or take umbrage at what’s been said  — albeit framed through a single, one-dimensional lens, for we can only see these characters through their ability (or inability) to express themselves in written language. We do not really know how the people in their lives see them.

Re: A dream
From:
Chris Woods
To: Pamela Robinson

Don’t you get sick of talking about yourself all the time?

The story works because we are following the narratives of their lives, which are filled with dramas, and we want to know how things will pan out.

Pamela, for instance, is losing control of her three sons (her eldest is physically abusive) while her ex-husband refuses to speak to her. Chris, on the other hand, is losing control of her aged mother, who wants to repatriate to Greece, and is constantly fighting with her sister who is her mother’s favourite.

These domestic grapples are set against a larger backdrop that puts everyone’s problems into perspective: Chris is giving English lessons to two Syrian teenage refugees who fled the bombing in Raqqa with their mother and do not know what happened to their father.

An unlikely friendship

From Where I Fell is an easy read, the kind that slips down like silky smooth hot chocolate on a cold winter’s afternoon.

It’s full of delicious little moments, snide comments, funny barbs and forthright confessions. It’s about the passage of life — marriage, divorce, motherhood, making a home and building a career (not necessarily in that order) — and all the pain, regret, sorrow and joy that make us human. It’s witty, warm and heartbreaking.

I very much enjoyed being in the company of these wonderfully resilient women.

This is my 2nd book for #AWW2021.  

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Dorothy Hewett, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Virago

‘Bobbin Up’ by Dorothy Hewett


Fiction – paperback; Virago Modern Classics; 204 pages; 1985.

First published in 1959, Bobbin Up is Dorothy Hewett’s debut novel famously written at her kitchen table in the space of eight weeks whenever her children were in bed. But it’s not really a novel; it’s more a collection of short stories focused on a bunch of diverse characters, all female, who work together at a woollen mill in Sydney during the 1950s.

It doesn’t have a lead protagonist, a deliberate decision by the author, because — as she points out in her “Introduction” to this UK-published edition — “it set out deliberately to tell the brief history of a group of women millworkers […] whose lives interconnected at the mill then separated off as they walked out the gates when the whistle blew”.

In these densely written chapters — which are alive with vivid descriptions of homes and streets and suburbs and beaches and public transport — we meet a bunch of hard-working women whose lives are dominated by their long shifts in the factory.

Gwennie joined the press of women round the bobbin boxes, pushing, shoving, clawing to grab the pitifully few decent bobbins. Bad bobbins made the work harder, the machine mucked up all the time, but there was never enough “goodies” to go round. It sickened Gwennie to join in that mad, vicious scramble. She always hung back and was left with an armful of rough-edged, half-broken fawn ones.

But it’s often what happens in their home lives that makes this book such a fascinating read, for here we are confronted with the reality of being a woman in the middle of the Twentieth Century; where working a strenuous factory job doesn’t excuse you from also having to keep a home, do the housework, prepare the meals and look after loved ones; where the lack of birth control means the threat of an unwanted pregnancy is a constant worry for anyone sexually active; and where men, often violent or abusive (or alcoholic), rule the roost.

The precarious nature of keeping a roof over your head is also a common theme. (In her “Introduction”, Hewett, who was comfortably middle-class and well educated, says that when she first arrived in Sydney from Perth she was shocked by the “poverty and sub-standard housing” in inner-city Sydney where, for the first time, she “mixed exclusively with the working class”.)

Inner-city Sydney

Bobbin Up is a fascinating portrait of inner-city Sydney at a particular point in time, with its slum landlords, tumbled down houses and dark alleyways.

Dawnie walked home through the long, asphalt lanes of factories, filled with managers’ cars, and the steady rattle of machinery. Past the little semis, with cracked plaster walls in yellow, cocoa and liver red, defending their privacy from the street with rows of murderous iron spikes.

It is also an intriguing examination of the working class and wears its politics on its sleeve. Hewett was a Communist Party member (when it was illegal) and edited its paper for a short time. She uses this experience in two chapters at the rear of the book, which focus on Nell, a Community Party member, who edits a bulletin — called “Bobbin Up” — that she distributes at the mill, informing the women of their rights. This eventually leads to a strike.

Here’s the lead story in the bulletin:

“W. H. Holler treats his two-year-old racehorses no better than he treats the women who sweat in his Alexandria mill. This week his strappers at Randwick went on strike — they said Holler was running his two-year-olds into the ground. As three-year-olds they were only fit for the scrap heap. It’s the same brand of greed that Holler uses in his spinning mills… only there it’s women, not horses he’s using up, in conditions not fit for a horse to work in.”

Today we might criticise someone from the middle-class writing about the working class because it’s not “lived experience” and because it’s not really their story to tell, but Hewett explains that at the time there was little, if any, working-class literature in Australia.

“The lives of such women remained a mystery. They could not write themselves, and they had no spokesperson to translate them into literature.”

Unfortunately, reading this through modern eyes, some of the vernacular and the working-class speech feels clunky and “wrong”, but I think the intention came from a good place. Hewett isn’t making fun of her subjects; she’s merely trying to convey them as authentically as possible.

Bobbin Up isn’t perfect, but it’s an impressive snapshot of another time and place, and the storytelling is conveyed in rich, descriptive language that often sings off the page. I really enjoyed being in the company of these complex, hard-working, vivid women, experiencing their struggles and small victories.

This is my 3rd book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021, and my 1st book for #AWW2021. I also read this for Bill’s Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week (Part II, 17-23 Jan. 2021) but ran out of time to review it in the relevant week. Better late than never, I guess.

And because Hewett was born in Perth, this book also qualifies as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.