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Jul/Aug 2008 Reviews & Interviews

A Complicated Pursuit in Australia

Review by Kajsa Wiberg

Adrian Hyland.
Moonlight Downs: An Emily Tempest Investigation.

Soho Press. 2006. 322 pp.
ISBN: 1569474839


Buy now from Amazon! Emily Tempest is not the kind of girl who goes looking for trouble, yet somehow, it has a tendency to find her. It is no surprise when on her second day back in Moonlight Downs—the Aboriginal community where she grew up—she finds community leader Lincoln in a bush, murdered and mutilated.

What is surprising, however, is the determination with which she takes it upon herself to bring the murderer to justice. Already plagued by numerous issues—her troubled relationship with childhood friend Hazel, for starters, along with an identity crisis brought on by her half Aboriginal, half whitefella heritage and the conventional twenty-something woman's quest to figure out what to do with her life—Emily swears that where the cops slack off, she'll take over.

Her first idea is painfully obvious. The night before the murder, she overhears an argument between Lincoln and maniacal sorcerer Blakie. Later that night, she sees Blakie's fire atop the ridge towering over the bush where in the morning she finds Lincoln (or what's left of him). The murderer has even cut out Lincoln's kidney—typical behavior for Aboriginal sorcerers as they believe kidneys are magic. Blakie is still there in the morning, and rather than denying his deed, he runs away. The evidence is piling up and all pointing toward Blakie. But the problem is, is it too obvious? The more times the cops fail to capture the suspect, the more suspicious Emily grows.

When the Moonlight Downs community scatters shortly after the murder—some venture out into the desert to mourn Lincoln, others are too afraid to stay, and still others kind of prefer life in the city—Emily has no choice but to face her worst nightmare: nearby redneck town Bluebush. Here, scumbags, crime, corruption and alcohol abuse abound. Working a bar for money and outback-style inept cops for information, Emily finds a suspect around every corner. The conflicts between the neighboring landowners and the Aboriginals are more intense than ever. With fortunes to be made from cattle and mining, there are as many people trying to get their hands on the land as there are just-out-of-jailers in Bluebush. And what is the deal with the community leader to follow in Lincoln's footsteps, signing documents before his predecessor is even dead?

When the cops who work with her start to receive immediate transfer orders, Emily knows she's getting close. When her apartment is broken into and trashed—by others than the usual teen gangs—she starts to get jumpy. And when she finds her best friend's husband murdered and mutilated the exact same way as Lincoln, she freaks out completely...so completely that she ends up putting both her own life and her best friend's on the line.

I found this book absolutely and completely addictive. I meant to read only the first couple of chapters before I went to sleep, but ended up finishing it in one sitting. Over the past couple of years, I have grown pretty accustomed to turning to certain types of books for intriguing plots, others for beautiful language, a whole new set for fascinating settings, and still others for truly live-and-breathing characters. But Adrian Hyland's novel has it all!

The plot, for starters, is of the brilliant, super-tight type where no event, however small, lacks consequence or meaning. Rest assured that the single mother Emily runs into at a basketball game is tied to the murder in a way you never would have guessed; that the old friend she encounters in a shop will save her butt at some point; and that there's a reason the gang that smashes her apartment dumps her books about rocks in the john. The story is so interwoven there is a clue it seems in every paragraph—or in every sentence.

The characters are as fascinating and non-stereotypical as they come. From the adorably wild protagonist Emily—half Aboriginal, half whitefella, with three almost-finished college degrees, numerous jobs and thirty thousand miles of travels in the bag—down to the tiniest side-kicks whom Emily used to find attractive until she learned they got it on with dogs, the cast is unique and intriguing across the board. There are the ones who change sides, like the good-turned-bad Mr. Sweet and the bad-turned-good Mr. Marsh, and the ones who surprise you, like Candy who makes a split second-decision to participate in Emily's scam, and Griffo, who passes on Emily's message to Jojo against all odds, thus saving her life. But possibly best of all is Jack, Emily's father, the mining prospector who plays cricket at funerals and adds tofu to his Irish stew!

As the language is miles above average for a mystery novel, it doesn't surprise me that Moonlight Downs won Australia's Ned Kelly award for best first novel. But I was amazed to find that it beat the language of most literary novels I've read. Mr. Hyland's unusual word choices, hilarious analogies and amazing richness of dialect make the paragraphs rise off the pages like funky, ethnic music. Lovers of the written word will suck on this novel like a divine piece of hard candy.

With all that said, the paramount reason this novel has captured my heart is the humor; the dry-yet-quirky, satirical-yet-warm wit that shines through every page, from beginning to the end. Even though the story covers a number of serious topics—racism, murder, oppression of native peoples, alcoholism and crime—and even though the plot is so chilling at times the hair in my neck stood on end, what I will remember the most about Moonlight Downs is how amusing it is. From the characters' actions and dialogue, to Emily's thoughts and reactions, Mr. Hyland's irresistible way with words had me smiling through half the book, and trembling with fear the other half.

For those who, like me, can't decide whether they prefer literary fiction, mysteries, memoirs written by interesting people or those mainstream works about relationships, this book has it all—and delivers it in a setting most of us have never encountered before. I can't think of a better way to spend an evening, and I can already tell this is the kind of novel I will keep coming back to... just to hear that hilarious sentence exchange once more, or to read again what Emily thought about the guys in the bar...

 

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