Review: Chris Womersley – Bereft

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.

Other reviews can be found at crimesquad.com, Fair Dunkum Crime and at Savidge Reads.

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The best of January’s reading.

January, a miserable month for us living in the northern hemisphere, was redeemed by some excellent crime fiction reading. I read 10 books for crimepieces and perhaps because there was a stong Scandinavian presence, the common theme seemed to be murders set to the backdrop of freezing winters. However, the highlight of my month was set in a much warmer climate, the Australian Desert. Gunshot Road by Adrian Hyland combined sparky writing with a great sense of place and one of the best female detectives around.

The books I read in January were:

1. Death and the Spanish Lady by Carolyn Morwood. (completed as part of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge).

2. The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart

3. The Winter of the Lions by Jan Costin Wagner

4. Believing the Lie by Elizabeth George

5. Gunshot Road by Adrian Hyland

6. V is for Vengeance by Sue Grafton (also reviewed for crimesquad.com)

7. The Mask of Glass by Holly Roth

8. The Final Murder by Anne Holt

9. 1222 by Anne Holt

10. Midwinter Sacrifice by Mons Kallentoft

Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise is hosting a meme summarizing the crime fiction recommendations for January 2012.

Review: Carolyn Morwood – Death and the Spanish Lady

Given that I am only attempting the ‘Miles’ level of the 2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge which requires me to read six books written by Australian women in 2012 I might need to slow down a little. However, over New Year suffering with a cold how could I resist reading about the Spanish Flu that spread across the world in 1919 in the aftermath of the Great War? This is the second book (after Chris Womersley’s Bereft) that I’ve read that has as a background the experience of Australian soldiers returning from the war on another continent and the accompanying frenzy over the infection they may have brought with them. Here in Britain we have a fair amount of fiction set in the period but I was woefully unaware of the Australian experience until now.

The book has Eleanor Jones as its central character, a nurse who has experienced first hand the horrors of combat injuries and has returned to Melbourne to nurse the returning soldiers who are infected with the ‘Spanish Lady’ as the illness in known. Morwood has obviously done considerable research about the methods that were taken to stop the infection spreading and I thought these descriptions wonderful. Sitting by open windows, spacing seats further apart around a dinner table and wearing masks around the city seem a little inadequate by modern standards but show how fear of an epidemic infused everyday life. The mass hospitals that sprung up must have been a terrible place to work in, but of course an ideal setting for a murder.

The murder by arsenical poisoning of Brian Reddy a soldier with a cruel reputation both before and during war provides Eleanor with a means of distraction away from her haunted past. There are a number of people who may have had contact with Reddy in a previous context and as Eleanor investigates the murder, a few wrong turns are made until the culprit identified.

I liked the book a lot. It was well written and full of period detail. I would have preferred the investigation into the murder to have been a bit more complex as I guessed the culprit early on in the book which is unusual for me these days. There are multiple points of view in the narrative which was extremely confusing to begin with but as I settled down into the book grew to like. An excellent start to the 2012 AWW challenge. Maybe I need to move myself up a level if I carry on at this pace.

Many thanks to Bernadette at Reactions to Reading for sending me her copy of this book. Her review can be found here at Fair Dinkum.

2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge

One of the best things about blogging are the wonderful suggestions you pick up from fellow crime fiction reviewers. We can all get stuck in a rut in our reading if we’re not careful, particularly when it can be so enjoyable to read old crime fiction favourites. In October, on the recommendation of Fair Dinkum Crime, I read Katherine Howell’s Cold Justice, a well plotted crime novel set in Sydney. Then this month I read and reviewed Peter Temple’s White Dog and I now a have a serious taste for Australian crime fiction. Realistically, given that I read a lot of crime fiction I thought that I could fit in a challenge around Aussie authors for 2012. This week Fair Dinkum posted about two challenges that are being hosted to promote Australian fiction. Both sounded interesting, but I decided to go for the 2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge simply because I would also like to read more women writers.

One of the challenges, of course, will be getting hold of the books in the first place. There isn’t a huge amount of Australian crime published in the UK and narrowing the field to women restricts this even more. However, nothing ventured nothing gained and I going for the ‘Miles’ level (read 6 books and review 3) and have settled on the following so far:

1. Katherine Howell – The Darkest Hour (Aready in my TBR pile)

2. Kathryn Fox – Skin and Bone (Again in my TBR pile)

3. Carolyn Morwood – Death and the Spanish Lady (reviewed at Fair Dinkum and sounds interesting)

4. Kirsten Tranter – The Legacy (published by Quercus in the UK and again sounds good)

5. P D Martin – Kiss of Death (not available in the UK or on Kindle but I fancy reading it)

6. ?

My sixth book I will add over the coming year when something grabs my fancy. So six books and nothing too strenuous. I’m looking forward to getting started in the new year.