|Oct/Nov 2018 Reviews & Interviews|
Allen & Unwin. 2018. 350 pp.
ISBN 978 1 76063 056 0.
The date is 1993. In the small Australian town of Cedar Valley, just off the coastal highway south of Sydney, "low-slung houses" sit among grassy, tree-lined paths, there are garden gnomes on the lawns, and cicadas sing. As in her first novel, Greenwood, Holly Throsby immerses the reader in the life of a small Australian town.
Two strangers come into town on the same day. The man—in a smart, slightly old-fashioned suit—sits down on the pavement outside Cora Franks's Curios and Old Wares shop, and dies. There is nothing on him to identify him, and an autopsy finds he probably died of an unknown poison. This is the first mystery of the book.
Benny Miller is also a stranger in this town. She is a 21-year-old from Sydney who has come to live in a cottage owned by an old friend of her mother. Benny's mother abandoned the family when Benny was five months old. Benny saw her a few times when she was little but has never seen her since. Now her mother has died, and she wants to know more about her and hopes her mother's old friend, who frequently appears in Benny's treasured photographs of her mother, will help. This is the second mystery.
Benny discovers her mother once lived and worked in Cedar Valley, and that some of the locals knew her. The locals discuss her amongst themselves as a woman they didn't trust, so there is a mystery there, too. And there are suggestions of a connection between Benny's mother, Vivian Moon, and the dead stranger.
Locals eventually recall another mystery death 45 years earlier in a beach-side suburb of Adelaide. This "Somerton Man" died, unidentified, in the same kind of suit and with the same objects on his pockets—including, in a fob pocket, a fragment of the Sufi poem The Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam. A similar fragment is found on the Cedar Valley corpse tucked into the tiny pocket inside the waist-band of his trousers.
Locals also, belatedly, recall seeing a strange, smartly dressed blonde woman, who spent some time in Cora's shop looking at expensive watches, then was seen bending down and talking to the stranger on the pavement. This new clue is added to the investigation.
Meanwhile, the reaction of the locals, the gossip, and the trivia of everyday life centered around the kitchen, the garden, the pub, and the rival book-clubs fill the pages of the book.
The pace of the book is slow. We do not really get to know the characters. Benny sometimes cries, but on the whole she is "stoic." The police investigation is plodding. And the major event in the town (occupying two chapters) is the memorial service and wake organized by the townsfolk for the dead stranger, which everyone attends.
The solution to all the mysteries, which happens in the final pages of the book, is undramatic and barely believable. And the strange blonde woman's involvement is a false lead.
For me, this book lacked suspense and was a disappointment.