This is simply a marvellous book. It is a crime story, and an
exciting one, but more importantly the book is a poem, full of emotion and
insight. Every sentence is beautiful, as the author depicts a harsh yet rich
landscape that is also a character in the story, seen through the unique
perspective of the most unusual and attractive detective I have come across in
a long while, Emily Tempest. And as
icing on the cake, there are science jokes – technology and science figure
heavily in the plot, but more interestingly, are as much part of the words on
the page as any other subject addressed by this talented writer.
Emily was the protagonist of Adrian Hyland’s debut novel
Diamond Dove (a.k.a. Moonlight Downs). As in the earlier novel, Gunshot Road is
a story set among the interconnected imagery of “deaths and dreams,
watercourses, tracks and plains”. Emily is half Aborigine, and is half at home
with the nomadic “blackfellers” who live with spirits, songs and taboos, in
parallel with the “whitefeller” Australia of booze and drugs as well as an
alien law and order. She is also half white, courtesy of her father, the miner
geologist Jack Tempest, and in her education and outlook is as much part of
the “white” world as she’s also part of the ancient, collective spirit of the
tribal culture in the Northern Territory of Australia.
Emily’s intuition, independence and bravery (told in the
previous novel) have impressed Tom McGillivray, superintendant of the Bluebush
Police Station, so he has made Emily the Aboriginal Community Liaison Officer
for the region. As the novel opens, she sets off to take up her post, only to
find Tom is sidelined and his replacement is less than ideal. Almost immediately,
the squad is called in to the case of a murder – two old men have had a drunken
argument and, it is assumed, one has killed the other with a geologist’s pick
while under the influence. Emily knows both men (as she knows most people in
this small but dispersed community) and is not convinced. The main thrust of
what follows is the story of her determination to ignore her superiors as well
as everyone else, and uncover what’s really going on. This, naturally, leads to
all kinds of dangers on the way to full discovery and final resolution.
Gunshot Road is a superior novel to Diamond Dove in that
Emily is a more real, mature person with a clearer sense of where she is headed,
and the story is far more focused, which makes the fantastically portrayed background
and culture much easier to absorb along with the quite complicated plot – the first
half of the novel is packed with witticisms and delightfully pungent, astute
observations, which slacken off somewhat in the second half, where seriousness and
tragedy are more frequent.
Like its predecessor, what makes this book so wonderful is
its empathy and poetry. Emily, and the Aboriginal people, live by different
mores than white Australians, living through dreams, songs and strong
about what may or may not be said. As she tries to do her job in the
“whitefeller” world, Emily is both enabled to discover facts known only to the “blackfellers”
as she understands their sensitivities and they trust her. On the down side, most
of the “whitefellers”, police and civilians, don’t understand, like or even
notice her, so she encounters hideous sexism, abuse, and worse.
This is a novel that must be read. It is superb. The reader
is immersed totally in Emily’s persona and world, so different from anything
that all but a few can have lived or know. The author’s achievement is simply
magnificent. I am lost in admiration for this wonderful piece of writing, in
effect a long prose poem; the author’s identification with his main character
and the very land itself; as well as his multidimensional portrayal of a
cultural group, with its contradictions and flaws, as it coexists with the “civilised”
world of governments, rules and structures, in a strange parallel-but-independent
way, as if the indigenous people are ghosts. The result is magic, in more than
one sense of the word.
I thank Anne Beilby of Text Publishing Australia, for giving me a proof copy of this book at this year's London Book Fair (Australian cover at the top of this post). The novel is published in the USA with the cover at the bottom of this post, by Soho Press (May 2010). It is published in the UK by Quercus on 1 July, with the cover in the middle of the post. The covers are all very different – I prefer the blue (UK) one and also like the Australian one. I really don't like the US cover (picture of person's back).
Read other reviews of this novel at: International Noir Fiction (Glenn compares and contrasts the language of Adrian Hyland with that of Peter Temple), Crime Space (Karen of AustCrime), Kittling: Books, Mysterious Reviews.