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

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

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.