This is the second book I’ve read this year set in Australia in the period immediately after the First World War. The era was dominated by a flu outbreak and thousands of soldiers who survived the slaughter in Europe died in the ensuing epidemic. Unlike Carolyn Morwood’s Death and the Spanish Lady, however, this book from Chris Womersley only mentions the epidemic to convey the sense of mental and physical disorientation that met soldiers returning from the war.
The book is set in 1919 with soldiers starting to trickle back to Australia from Europe where suspicion and indifference awaits them. One of the soldiers is Quinn Walker, who fled from his home in the town of Flint in New South Wales ten years earlier when he was accused of the rape and murder of his twelve year old sister, Sarah. The town are convinced of his guilt but Quinn knows that someone else was responsible for the crime. Now his experiences in the Great War have compelled him to return to the town where he is likely to receive rough country justice if he is ever captured. Hiding in the hills above Flint, he befriends the orphan Sadie Fox. Only she appears unafraid of him and helps him survive the rigours of outdoor life. But Quinn needs to find the answers to the events of ten years ago if he is to move on with his life and this sets him on a collision course with those with secrets to hide.
Although the subject matter might seem off-putting the focus of this book isn’t the rape and murder of the child Sarah. Instead, the story deals with Quinn’s attempts to come to terms with the past and in particular the decisions that he made on the spur the moment that have shaped his life since. The character of Quinn is very well drawn although I feel that his act of fleeing the crime scene is never properly explained. Sadie Fox is a much more satisfactory character, attempting to survive amongst adult predators and a harsh physical environment.
What distinguishes this book above other crime novels is the quality of the writing. It manages to combine lush descriptions of the landscape and spare prose with large pieces of dialogue. I found the style quite unusual and the subject moving, although as a crime novel it perhaps failed to address the underlying issue of child abuse and how small towns allow criminality towards the vulnerable to flourish.