Nicola West Catch Us the Foxes

Nicola West weaves a conspiracy within a conspiracy in her debut crime novel.

Nicola West opens Catch Us the Foxes with the protagonist, 29-year-old Marlowe ‘Lo’ Robertson, being introduced to an enthusiastic crowd at the Sydney Opera House:

‘She’s a bestselling author, a former Young Australian of the Year and Walkley Award winner … best known for exposing one of Australia’s most insidious and prolific killers.’

Lo is the author of the book The Showgirl’s Secret, which comprises the bulk of Catch Us the Foxes, bookended by the Opera House event. So we know from the outset that whatever befalls her in the course of this story, she will survive and thrive.

Set in the small coastal town of Kiama on the New South Wales south coast, The Showgirl’s Secret is Marlowe’s first-person account of discovering the body of the year’s showgirl, beautiful Lily Williams, in the stables at the showground just as the evening fireworks are about to start. In addition to the shock of finding her friend dead, Marlowe notices something strange:

Lily’s top had ridden up underneath her sash, exposing the small of her back. A patch of her skin was missing, but the wound didn’t look fresh.  As I walked towards her, I noticed seven strange symbols had been carved around the flayed flesh. … My instinct told me they were the key to her death …

Marlowe lost her mother when she was a child, and her relationship with her policeman father isn’t particularly close. But now, her father – waiting for her on the other side of the showground – is the one she calls.  When he swears her to secrecy about the symbols, Marlowe’s curiosity is well and truly aroused, and so begins a slow piecing together of possible suspects and a grander, darker, story altogether.

Before her death Lily had been buying numerous crystals from the local new age shop for ‘protection’. Did she know someone was out to kill her? But who? And why?

Lo gets hold of Lily’s diaries, and finds within their pages disturbing accounts of small children wearing fox masks running through the rainforests above the town. A secret cult of prominent figures. Could any of it be true? Or is the journal simply a catalogue of distressing dreams and delusions?

There are clues pointing in both directions, and at different stages individual characters claim to be speaking the truth — but no one is quite what they seem.

This is a twisty tale with a number of secrets to excavate, and Lo is both courageous and terrier-like in her dedication to the task, even risking a scene at Lily’s funeral to flush out the killer. At times the revelations – or are they red herrings? – seem to stretch credibility, but the pace doesn’t falter and carries the story on.

For Marlowe, Kiama is ‘the bucolic little hellhole we called home’. It is a place of gossip, prejudice, and conformity – ‘fit in or fuck off’. Lo is ambitious, keen to leave and forge a career as a crime reporter. At the time of Lily’s death, however, she is merely an intern on the local rag, assigned to take photographs for a feature on the show. When she suggests she could write about Lily for the paper, the editor – drunk on rum and grief – angrily declares her a ‘vulture’ and sacks her.

As the media descend on the town, Lo sees the opportunity to offer an ‘inside story’ as a way to get a job and get out of town.

For all that Lo is driven by her desire to leave as much as her desire to learn the truth of Lily’s death, one of the strengths of Catch Us the Foxes is the evocation of Kiama and the rainforests behind it.

Here she reflects on the town’s most famous feature:

Watching the waves violently crash over the rocks of the bay, I knew that the blowhole would be putting on a show tonight. I would have loved to pretend that, after twenty-two years of observing the spectacle, it no longer impressed me. But there was something about that column of water – shooting twenty-five metres up into the air, accompanied by a deafening roar – that brought out the kid in me.

The blowhole was an intrinsic part of the town, but unlike the twee historic buildings painted in photo-op ready hues and the hulking monuments to long-lost ghosts, its reverence was actually deserved. There was something primordial about it.

In her acknowledgements Nicola West talks about growing up in Kiama, and she gives us lovely details: the way the post office building looks at night, its ‘hideous pink hue softened in the moonlight’; Daisy, the life-size papier-mâché cow, standing outside the Old Fire Station Art Gallery; the crowds of weekend tourists that keep the locals confined to the backstreets; and the importance of the annual show, with its carnival rides, prizes for the best produce, livestock, arts and crafts, and the annual Miss Showgirl competition.

But for all her intimate knowledge of the town, Lo comes to question how well she knows its inhabitants – starting with her father. 

There is a final, devastating twist at the end as we return to the opening scene at the Opera House. Whether or not it’s a final step too far – and readers may have different views – it does not diminish the strength of what preceded it: a page-turner enhanced by complex relationships, driving ambition, and a loving evocation of a town, its beaches and the wild mountain behind it.

Nicola West Catch Us the Foxes Simon & Schuster 2021 PB 384pp $32.99

This review originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 19 August 2021

Adam Thompson Born into This

Adam Thompson’s vivid stories encompass resistance, revenge, and hard truths.

The 16 stories that comprise Adam Thompson’s debut collection are all set among Tasmania’s Aboriginal community. Many of them are set on the islands of Bass Strait, and one of the strengths and pleasures of the collection is the evocation of the landscape and climate of the islands. Here is Chappell Island during a storm in the story ‘Aboriginal Alcatraz’:

The rising tide had brought on the rollers, and they dashed the granite sentinels at the mouth of our harbour. White foamy plumes – streaked with ribbon weed – rained across the coastal plains with the aid of the westerly, salinating thin soils and crystallising the blue-grey cobbles above the beach. It was there, within that miracle combination of salt crust and sparse tussock grass, that the kunikung grew. It never failed to surprise me even amid the distress and turmoil of this very moment, how it managed to survive, let alone produce the sweetest and most nourishing bush tucker.

Some islands are places Aboriginal youth can visit to learn about their culture, others are places of punishment, refuge or work (for some families the annual muttonbird season provides a vital income).

But the islands are changing. In the first story, ‘The Old Tin Mine’, Uncle Ben is leading a group of teenagers on a survival camp – ‘Traditional food, yarns, roughing it’ – on Cape Barren Island. ‘Roughing it’ will involve the group finding their own water, and Ben intends to lead them to the old tin mine, where there has always been water. But when a crisis erupts and the group is airlifted out:

I craned my neck to see the waterhole at the old tin mine. … But the light that caught my eye wasn’t the familiar glint of silvery water. It was the glittery sparkle that comes from mica in river sand. There was no water.

‘Time and Tide’, later in the book, explores other changes. Each year Henry and his father have gone across to Big Dog Island for the muttonbirds, sinking all their money into supplies in anticipation of the returns the birds will bring. But this year the rookeries are virtually empty.

The scientists had predicted a poor breeding season and blamed climate change. They said the birds’ food was scarce due to rising ocean temperatures. … Henry didn’t show it to James when he finally returned. His father didn’t believe in climate change – or the internet.

Not all the stories are set on the islands. The title story, ‘Born into This’ is one of the strongest in the collection. Kara, who works at Launceston’s Aboriginal Heath Service, reflects on the exploitation of the landscape:

Forestry had been active on this side [of the ridge], and reaching to the mountains in the distance was a patchwork of tree plantations, at various stages of growth. Here and there, random sections of vegetation had been cleared back to bald earth, making the landscape look like a huge, incomplete jigsaw puzzle

The first time Kara stood at this spot, she’d melted into tears, and the noise of her emotions drifted across the valley. … The vision of the land – her ancestors’ country, so far removed from the cultural landscape it once was – took her over the edge. 

In her own small way, Kara has embarked on a project to resist these changes. She thinks of the native plants that remain as:

Natural survivors, like her own family, born into a hostile world and expected to thrive. She took in the surrounding devastation and thought again about her own life. Born into this.

A number of stories deal with white characters wanting to claim Aboriginality, or Aboriginal characters denying their heritage. In ‘Born into This’ a white woman arrives at the Aboriginal Heath Centre with her son:

She’d seen a thousand Johnny-come-latelys and had observed there were two main types: the ones who played the sympathy card, and the ones who tried to intimidate you into accepting them. This woman and her son were the latter kind.

‘We want our Aboriginal papers, please. We just found out his father is Indigenous.’ …

With a pudgy hand, the boy pushed a tuft of fringe off his pocked forehead. ‘Yeah, my aunty says we’re Aboriginal,’ he muttered. ‘And that we can get stuff … you know, for free.’

… As unscrupulous as the Johnny-come-latelys were, they were rarely so open about their intention to scam benefits.

This theme is explored in more detail in ‘Descendant’. Here, proud Aboriginal schoolgirl Dorothy (a little too proud for her white teachers and classmates) questions a girl who suddenly announces that she, too, identifies as Aboriginal. As an exasperated Dorothy observes:

 ‘Aboriginal is something that you are. It is something you are born as. It isn’t just something you can choose to be, such as a … teacher. Or an idiot.’

Other characters, such the two brothers in ‘Bleak Conditions’, are at odds over their Aboriginality. Jarrod tells his brother:

‘We’re palawa, whether you like it or not. I hate it that you live like a raytji. It brings shame on me. Shame on our community … At least I’m with my people …’

To which his brother responds:

‘Your people? What people? We’re just descendants, Jarrod. Aborigines were our ancestors. We’re not them. Sure, we’ve got a bit of colour in us but, you know …’

Other stories explore the tensions between black and white. In ‘Honey’, Sharkey, a white beekeeper, asks his Aboriginal offsider:

‘So Nathan, what is the Aboriginal word for honey? … Wanna use the name on me label. Be a good gimmick for selling the honey, I reckon. ’Specially with the tourists.’

At the end of the story Nathan quietly, shockingly, gives his answer.

In ‘The Blackfellas From Here’, Dr James Clifford is a white man who has achieved a considerable amount of publicity by attaching a plaque to the front of his large house overlooking Launceston. The plaque reads: The owners acknowledge that this house stands on Aboriginal land.

Here Thompson has a lot of fun bringing Kat to the doctor’s front door. Posing as a university student ‘doing a paper on Aboriginal land return’, Kat inveigles her way inside and presents him with conveyancing papers:

‘I’m offering you an opportunity to put your money where your mouth is, doc … You get to right the wrongs you speak of, and give your house and your land back to us: the blackfellas from here.’

These stories are by turns fierce, lyrical, suspenseful (‘Aboriginal Alcatraz’), whimsical (‘Morpork’) and poignant (‘Jack’s Island’, ‘Sonny’). They can be unabashedly political (‘Invasion Day’, ‘Kite’), but also explore the complexities of relationships both within the Aboriginal community and between black and white.

Adam Thompson writes with passion and verve, and Born into This brims with insight and hard truths in stories that are vividly drawn and frequently compelling.

Adam Thompson Born into This UQP 2021 PB 256pp $29.99

This review was originally published in the Newtown Review of Books on 25 May 2021.

Evie Wyld The Bass Rock

Evie Wyld won the Miles Franklin Award for her last novel, All the Birds, Singing. Her latest, set on the coast of Scotland, contains both beauty and violence.

The Bass Rock opens with a small girl, who we will shortly meet as the grown-up Viv, finding the body of a woman in a suitcase on the beach. As her mother cries, ‘Come away, come away,’ the child sees inside the suitcase:

… an eye that seemed to look back at me, that seemed to know something about me and to ask a question and give an answer. In the memory, which is a child’s memory and unreliable, the eye blinks.

And thus Evie Wyld sets out her two main themes: violence against women, and the uncanny. In true Gothic style, we meet wolves, foxes, visions, ghosts. A sinuous thread of unease runs through it all, at times shading into explicit danger. Continue reading

Sarah Hopkins The Subjects

The first page of Sarah Hopkins’ fourth novel contains a diagram of the brain – the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala and the rest all neatly labelled. So, yes, this is a novel about brains – specifically about brainwaves, what they can reveal and how they might be influenced – but it’s also about young offenders, outsourcing correctional services to private providers, the ethics of research, and how we shape the stories we tell ourselves.

Narrated by Daniel G, now 47, who was diagnosed with PTSD at the age of 10, The Subjects largely focuses on when he was 16 and convicted of trafficking prescription drugs to his classmates. With a history of ‘going berserko’, as his mother puts it, he is ordered by the judge to attend a ‘‘residential program to address the issues underlying your behaviour’’ in a remote part of the Australian countryside. There he joins 11 other adolescents who have all had some kind of run-in with the law.

There are echoes of Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Robert Lukins’ Everlasting Sunday in this throwing-together of perceived troublemakers in a remote location. However, unlike Wood’s and Lukins’ cohorts, Hopkins’ teenagers live in comfort, their needs given considerable attention.

This review appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 21 June 2019. You can read the full review here.

Belinda Castles Bluebottle

Bluebottles are common on Australian beaches, their attractive hue concealing the painful poison within. Belinda Castles’ new novel (she previously won the Vogel for The River Baptists and published a historical novel, Hannah and Emil, in 2012) opens at the beach on Christmas Day, 1994. It is an iconic Australian scene, with people ‘wandering between the baking orange sand and the cool, invigorating surf’. Among them, one figure draws the eye:

… a small pink-shouldered man leaping about at the water’s edge. He galloped one way and then the other along a five-metre stretch of sand, like a coach on the touchline, raising his fist to the sky, calling out to the sea. He jumped in the air. He leaned on his knees and shook his head. … Some [of the others on the beach] … kept half an eye on him as he called out to his children from the shore … oblivious as he was to the atmosphere of the beach, its softness, its air of gentle pleasure … feelings surging through him like a heavy swell pushing towards the shore.

There is an effortless sensuality in Castles’ writing, here contrasting the languor of a hot afternoon with the frenetic activity of the man, who, we come to learn, is Charlie Bright.

This review originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books. You can read the full review here

Fatima Bhutto The Runaways

What makes a jihadi? The three runaways of Fatima Bhutto’s second novel are all young, educated and determined to flee their old lives for the Iraqi desert. The Runaways opens with Anita slipping into Karachi’s airport very early one morning. As she shows her passport to a ranger, she keeps her dupatta over her face, hoping no one will recognise her.

Anita has been raised a Christian in a Karachi slum. Her mother earns a living massaging the bodies of wealthy women, and the limit of her ambition for her daughter is for her to become a servant in one of their houses. Anita, however, wants to continue her education, which occurs both at school and at the feet of their neighbour, Osama, who introduces her to Urdu poetry and ideas of resistance: Rise like lions after slumber in unvanquishable number.

This review was first published on 3 May 2019 in the  Sydney Morning Herald. You can read the full review here.

Jacqueline Kent Beyond Words: A year with Kenneth Cook

Award-winning biographer Jacqueline Kent has written books about Beatrice Davis, Hephzibah Menuhin and Julia Gillard, but here she tells a much more personal story of her relationship with the writer Kenneth Cook. 

Jacqueline Kent’s memoir is the story of a love affair, a marriage and a tragedy. Within this slim volume spanning the years 1986-1987, she paints a vivid picture of the Australian writer Kenneth Cook, a man of contradictions and great charm who wrote the classic Wake in Fright and a string of other books. Along the way she provides a vivid snapshot of a particular moment in Australian publishing:

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, local publishing was expanding. Though it was dominated by British and American companies, at least they were publishing books by Australian writers for Australian readers. There were more books, more writers, more stories, and it was exciting to be part of all that, however small my role was … I became a freelance editor, working on a project-by-project basis for several publishing houses.

 Many of my editor colleagues who freelance will identify with her when she says:

I enjoyed being able to concentrate on the work at hand without factoring in office politics, personalities and meetings … Generally, the work suited me very well. On good days – and there were many – helping authors to write better books felt like an honourable craft, an honest and useful thing to do.

As well as being an editor, Jacqueline Kent is the author of three biographies, including the award-winning A Certain Style, about pioneering Australian editor Beatrice Davis. Her formidable knowledge of Australian publishing is worn lightly in this very personal story, however there are fascinating sidelights into editing in the 1980s, which was a very different process to the on-screen matter it is today. Back then:

… manuscripts were living things. Those piles of paper with pencil markings like bird tracks, crossings-out, paragraphs chopped up and sticky-taped to pages and sentences selectively obliterated in a blizzard of Tipp-Ex could seem as huge, creative and messy as the process of thought itself.

Kent says of herself ‘I lived in words, was surrounded by words; words were my business …’ and early on we see her engagement with nuances of meaning as she introduces us to Cook:

People, whether they knew him or not, tended to declare that Kenneth Cook was larger than life. They would say this in a slightly self-congratulatory way, as if this hackneyed expression was the best and only way to describe him. (It’s a phrase almost always applied to men, by the way; maybe the thought is that women can generally be cut down to size.)

Jacqueline Kent and Kenneth Cook first met in 1985, when he was briefly engaged to someone else. Their love affair began in early 1986, when Kent was commissioned to edit his book of humorous short stories, The Killer Koala. Their initial telephone conversation about the manuscript was not promising, with Cook explaining:

‘I am not used to being edited. My characters do not exclaim, they do not snort, wince in speech, respond, or chuckle or gibber. I don’t want you to change “he said” or “she said” to any of these things. Is that clear?’

Oh, for …

‘Perfectly clear, thank you, Mr Cook,’ I said, making no effort to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. ‘And would you like me to put hyphens between the syllables of the long words, too?’

When they subsequently meet for lunch, she asks him whether he’d worked with editors before:

‘I only agreed to have an editor for these stories because [his publisher] Margaret Gee told me I would probably need one. It’s the way they do things now, apparently.’

I spotted an attitude I had met before in older writers: I have been writing for forty years thanks very much, and I don’t need somebody your age to tell me how to do it. I’ll agree to an editor under sufferance, but leave my words alone.

Kent observes that writers of Cook’s generation (he was nearly 20 years older than she was), like Ruth Park and Dal Stivens:

… had usually had their work presented to the reader almost exactly as it had been submitted to the publisher, with perhaps a bit of tweaking from a proofreader.

Nevertheless, despite differences in age and outlook, the spark was lit, and they married on 6 January 1987. On 18 April that year, as they began to set up camp in a spot by the Macquarie River, Kenneth Cook died of a heart attack.

This devastating episode is described plainly, but Kent does not ignore its more surreal moments. After having her husband’s death confirmed by the local GP, she finds herself sat at a table of gliding enthusiasts at the town’s only motel. These well-meaning strangers struggle to find a way to respond to what has just happened to her. ‘At least it wasn’t bowel cancer,’ one says reassuringly.

Kent describes grief in its overwhelming brutality. In coming back into life in the months afterward, she observes that yes, she has friends to visit and to go out with, but ‘What I no longer had, of course, was somebody to do nothing with.’

Her loss was compounded by the fact that when he died Cook was an undischarged bankrupt. Touchingly, he had visited his doctor for a medical check-up before the marriage. One wishes Kent had visited an accountant or a lawyer beforehand to understand the ramifications of marrying a bankrupt.

However much he loved her – and there seems no doubt that he did – he left her with a terrible legacy when he died: threatening letters from bankruptcy lawyers arrived, and the unit they had bought together was sold without consulting her.

Kent is clear-eyed in her portrait of Cook, who could be infuriating as well as charming, and delivers wonderful succinct portraits of minor characters such as Peter Owen — the English publisher of Anais Nin, Hermann Hesse and Doris Lessing — for whom she briefly worked in London:

He was a short and erratic man, even shambolic, with a harsh voice and mad Einstein grey hair; a wearer of expensive suits with trousers trailing on the floor and important buttons missing.

Jacqueline Kent has called her memoir Beyond Words, but the words she has assembled here powerfully convey the impact of profound grief and an insight into Kenneth Cook the man and the writer. This is an elegant, wry, beautifully written tribute to an intense love and shocking loss.

Jacqueline Kent Beyond Words: A year with Kenneth Cook UQP hardback 256pp $29.99

This review originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 26 March 2019.


Rosalie Ham The Year of the Farmer

The author of The Dressmaker returns with The Year of the Farmer – a novel of romance and skullduggery in a small farming community.  

Part mystery, part romance, part social comedy and part slapstick, The Year of the Farmer brings together an engaging cast of less-than-perfect characters in its small Australian town, and follows their rivalries, discontents and passions as they battle the carpetbaggers of the Water Authority.

Rosalie Ham’s fourth novel was published last year, before the scandal of the recent fish kills in the Murray-Darling basin and the release of the report of the South Australian government’s royal commission into the management of the river system and its findings of maladministration and malfeasance. For those of us living in the city, The Year of the Farmer has plenty to teach us about the water market and the ways of irrigation, introducing us to things such as Dethridge wheels, flume gates and above-ground lateral sprinklers. In its description of the challenges faced by small farmers dependent on irrigation water, and the sharp practices surrounding allocations, the novel could not be more timely.

At its heart is Mitchell Bishop, ‘a lean, broad-shouldered young man in his prime, expectation in his heart despite the drought and his just mildly successful marriage.’ When we first meet Mitch, he is handfeeding sheep on the farm his father has worked before him.  As the ‘thread of skinny, unhandsome sheep were falling into line, like a zipper closing, either side of the thread of golden feed’, he tells his faithful dog Tinka, ‘This is my year, our year. Rain will fall and life will change.’

In the course of the novel Mitch’s life does change and rain does fall, but nothing is simple. If Mitch is the hardworking hero with a heart of gold, running his farm as best he can despite the drought and the bank, looking after his aged father, seeing through the wiles of the Water Authority, putting up with his marriage, yearning for rain and his childhood sweetheart Neralie, his wife Mandy is the most interesting.

Even though Mitch is ‘the most popular bloke in town’, the town has been unable to prevent the catastrophe of his marriage:

The whole town was at the pub the night Mandy Roper smiled at Mitch and told him she’d like to buy his dead mother’s little white wagon. ‘Can you come and take me for a ride in it?’

Lana said, ‘Do something,’ but Kevin said, ‘You can’t deny anyone a root,’ and Jasey said, ‘She’ll be hard to get rid of.’

Mandy is awful. Pitiable, too, but mostly awful. As Denise from the op shop says, ‘Mandy Roper’s been like a knife slicing through polystyrene since she was born.’

A study in frustration and vindictiveness, Mandy is desperate to belong but pathologically unable to act in her own best interests. At one point she sits down to a meal at the hotel, feels the eyes of everyone on her and cannot eat for thinking that her food has been poisoned. She knows that Mitch only married her because she said she was pregnant and Neralie was out of town. And now Neralie’s back.

Ham has assembled a large cast, and it can take time to get to keep everyone straight in the early stages. Aside from Mitch, Mandy and Neralie (who has returned to take over the town’s only pub), there’s Jasey who runs the IGA and her best friend Lana; Kellie the hairdresser with her fancy manicures; Kevin who runs the service station and is owed money by everyone because of the drought; the ferals camped by the river; Mitch’s sister Isobel Prestwich and her fine-fleeced merinos; Mitch’s arthritic father Cal; and 85-year-old Esther Shrugg, whose farm is a haven for vermin and weeds.

Then there is the uncompromising Glenys Dingle from the Water Authority, keen to keep her masters happy and to see that the lake beside her lakeside apartment actually contains water. As she explains to her henchman, local man Cyril Horrick:

… you will get your farmers to install new irrigation systems to save water then you will cut water allocations so that I can please the minister and the Federal Government and the green factions and every other club, organisation and committee that’s arguing over water.

Cyril undertakes this task with a garage full of brand-new water pumps and meters that he believes will provide a useful addition to his superannuation.

The novel opens with a pack of dogs:

… outrunning the westbound flow of the sluggish river to the sleeping sheep captured in their paddocks and yards, innocent to the coming game.

And it’s not a bad metaphor for the behaviour of the Water Authority towards the farmers trapped on their land by drought and debt.

Ham is clear-eyed but not unsympathetic to her characters, and has a fine sense of the absurd and a keen ear for dialogue. After the slightly chaotic start when we meet so many characters at once, it’s not long before you start to feel like a local, and the novel’s sly exuberance becomes irresistible.

Rosalie Ham The Year of the Farmer Pan Macmillan 2018 PB 336pp $32.99

This review originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 19 February 2019.

Glenda Guest A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline

Glenda Guest’s follow-up to her prizewinning debut Siddon Rock (2009) is a novel of memory and betrayal. It opens with a brief, arresting scene:

On the kitchen table lies a brown-paper-wrapped package.

Promise, he says.


He pushes it towards her.

The ‘her’ is 20-year-old Cassandra Aberline, and the kitchen belongs to the Blanchards, her family’s neighbours in the WA wheat belt. The package contains a large sum of money. ‘Use it to be safe,’ Cassie’s told. ’Buy a house, or make a career.’

Carrying the brown paper parcel securely beneath her jumper, Cassie takes the train across the country to Sydney. But as the novel reveals, the money has come at a hefty price.

These events occurred 45 years ago, and now Cassandra Aberline is an actor of some distinction teaching drama classes at a university in Sydney. She is independent, a loner who prefers her own company; a runner who relishes her early morning routine around the streets of her inner-city neighbourhood.

However, a visit to a neurologist has revealed her vulnerability: she has the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

The diagnosis spurs her to take a trip back into her past, to once again cross the continent on the Indian Pacific, but this time in the opposite direction, and with a luxurious ‘platinum class’ cabin all to herself. Her hope is to ‘somehow in three days and nights … resolve the niggling doubt that has held her to ransom for some forty-odd years’.

It’s a common enough trope, protagonists in search of the past, returning to a particular location and testing their memories, but here the Alzheimer’s diagnosis and the mystery of the money add additional layers. How much damage has the disease done to her brain? Are her memories accurate? Or has she spent a lifetime constructing a version of events to justify her own actions?

The novel is structured around the train journey from Sydney to Perth, broken into sections such as Sydney to Broken Hill, Broken Hill to Adelaide, etc, each section moving fluidly between the present of the train and episodes from the past.

Despite her refusal to accept the implications of her diagnosis — she is determined to return to teaching once this trip is over and ‘not forget Brecht’s name again’ — on the train we see the reality of it when mental blanks leave her stranded in confusion, unable to find her way back to her cabin from the dining car. A kindly steward eventually leads her back to the correct carriage: ‘She tries to tell him she is not drunk but lost, but the words are too large and can’t be said.’

She remembers setting out on that first train journey:

Fragments of that day are embedded like stone chips in her mind: the creak and click of the flyscreen of the farmhouse back door more used to being slammed shut than firmly closed on a life; the drive to the siding, a whistlestop for the new cross-continental train; the sudden thought that there might not be a vacant berth, even though she had phoned that morning and booked her passage; and would the driver remember to make the unusual stop, to pick her up?

When Cassie arrives in Sydney, the Vietnam War is still raging and US servicemen throng the streets of Kings Cross on R&R. Having made good her escape from the west and everything she has ever known, and banked that cumbersome bundle of cash, she falls into working at a tattoo parlour.

There’s an immediacy to these memories, even if at times they do feel like a checklist for Sydney of the era, with glimpses of Madam Lash ‘sauntering’ down the street and the heiress activist Nita (who disappears à la Juanita Neilsen) dropping in for a chat at the tattoo parlour. However the scenes with Bammy, the owner of the tattoo parlour, and Cassie’s clumsy attempts to help a homeless woman, beat strongly.

But it’s the more distant past that is calling Cassandra: her childhood and young adulthood at the family farm, Home Ground, with her father, Alec, and older sister Helen. She and Helen fight ‘like two cats in a sack’, and Cassie feels more at home on the neighbouring property with Mary and Hec Blanchard and their identical twin sons, Dion and Coe.

The boys become like brothers to her (Cassie claims only she and Mary can tell which twin is which), and Mary and Hec surrogate parents. Mary had been an actor in her native Greece but gave it up to marry her Australian soldier and become a farmer’s wife. As the children grow older, Cassie comes to accept that the boys are not her brothers, and her relationship with Coe intensifies. When the twins decide to enlist for Vietnam, she has to accept that there is nothing she can do about it, and their enlistment becomes the touchpaper that ignites what follows.

According to her biography at the front of the book, Glenda Guest grew up in the wheat belt of Western Australia and she describes life on a farm there without sentimentality, showing the isolation and the sheer hard physical work the land requires, and with a poet’s eye for the landscape.

Cassandra has a longstanding love of Shakespeare and there are echoes of Shakespeare in the ultimate unwinding of the plot: there are twins, tragedy, betrayal, and serendipitous encounters. In this otherwise naturalistic novel these slightly larger-than-life elements undercut some of the real pathos at the heart of Cassandra’s story.

But the passion for Shakespeare that infuses the novel can also illuminate tragedy:

Now it seems her mind is reaching for its own darkness: to be made human by the faculty of memory and then to have it ripped away is the ultimate satire, worthy of Shakespeare.

Unlike Siddon Rock, here Guest eschews magic realism, but with its unreliable narrator and Shakespearean plot dimensions, A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline isn’t a completely naturalistic work either. It exists on the plane of memories, where grief can enlarge small events and erase larger ones. Guest’s transcontinental journey provides an engaging and disturbing account of the terrain.

This review originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 20 February 2018.

Favourite books of 2017

Benjamin Law Moral Panic 101: Equality, acceptance and the Safe Schools scandal

A hugely important analysis of how a big lie took hold to derail a progressive policy that had nothing to do with teaching schoolchildren how to strap on dildos and everything to do with harm reduction. Information from Beyond Blue confirms that LGBTI people in Australia have poorer mental health and higher rates of suicide than average, and statistics published by the Australian Human Rights Commission show that ‘80 per cent of homophobic bullying involving LGBTI young people occurs at school and has a profound impact on their well-being and education’. Written with a measured tone even when describing outrageous calumnies, this essay investigates how an initiative to keep children safe came to be so shamefully misrepresented. Required reading for everyone interested in how sections of the media and politics can work together to further ignorance and intolerance.

George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo

There was just so much hype about George Saunders – ‘a genius!’ they gushed, not to mention that Booker Prize he won earlier this year – that I held off reading this, believing only disappointment could follow such high praise. However, having now read Lincoln in the Bardo I’m determined to read more of Saunders’s work. This is an extraordinary novel – fresh and profoundly moving. Yes, it’s a ghost story that turns on the death of President Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie, but read it for its very human story of grief, longing, delusion and hope — and its wonderful wit and flashes of the absurd. Saunders’s habit of putting a speaker’s name at the end of each piece of dialogue/thought was a little confusing at first but in retrospect I can see why he has chosen to treat the voices in this multi-voice narrative in this way. Haunting in very sense.

Adrian McKinty Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly

Nothing like a crime novel that begins with its hero digging his own grave … Adrian McKinty’s evocation of Belfast during the Troubles is both energetic and chilling, and evokes the complexity of personal allegiances in a city at war. The plot unwinds in a sprightly manner with strong characters and dark twists. I can only salute the judges of the Ned Kelly Awards for giving it a prize.

Kamila Shamsie Home Fire

The complexity of personal allegiances is also a theme of Kamila Shamsie’s seventh novel, with the choices of Pavaiz Pasha, a young British man of Pakistani background, compromising his sisters in the eyes of the authorities – just as his jihadi father had done before him. This is a big novel and its themes are significant ones – how young men become seduced by extremism, and how those who love them most suffer for it. The novel is told by Pavaiz, his two sisters (the older, responsible Isma and Pavaiz’s beautiful twin Aneeka) and by father and son Karamat and Eamonn Lone. While the Lone and Pasha families are not quite the Montagues and Capulets, the relationship between Aneeka and Eamonn carries the story to its devastating conclusion.

Neal Drinnan Rural Liberties

This zesty tale is set in the small Australian town of Moralla, where the old Colchester place has been turned into an establishment called Rural Liberties, ‘a fresh new frontier for love and life’. The local children – and not a few of their parents – believe this is code for orgies. Drinnan has a lot of fun with small-town life, and some wonderful lines: the disappointed father who tells his new son-in-law, ‘You were certainly not what we had in mind for our daughter’s first husband’; the local publican who greets new customers with ‘Welcome to Moralla! Tidy Town two years running!’; and the husband and wife relationship experts, authors of the bestseller Are You Awake Love? who are in town to flog the sequel, Are You Still Awake Love? Yet the novel opens with a tragedy, the death of beautiful teenager Rebecca Moore, and beneath the lightness of touch are darker issues such as date rape, bigotry, alternative lifestyles and the ethics of reality television. But it’s also fun and hugely readable, even when the plot threatens to spin out of control.

This list originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 19 December 2017 in the article ‘NRB Editors on their favourite books of 2017’.