And Fire Came Down
Published 1 August 2017 by Echo Publishing
Read from 17 to 18 November 2017
Caleb waited him out. Most hearing people panicked when they were dropped into silence, throwing words like grappling hooks to pull themselves out. He’d only met a handful of hearies who could last more than five seconds. Hirst lasted seven.
Emma Viskic’s debut novel, Resurrection Bay, was published to a swathe of critical acclaim in 2015, taking out the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction and the hat-trick of Best Novel, Best Debut and Readers’ Choice at the Davitt Awards. It was an assured beginning to the Caleb Zelic series, featuring a profoundly deaf (and frustratingly stubborn) protagonist in a tangle of complex relationships. Perhaps borrowing from her accomplished classical music career, Viskic brought together an ensemble of diverse players and skilfully conducted symphony from what should have been cacophony: abrasive ex-cop partner Frankie, ex-wife Kat, terrifying Koori mother-in-law, cop Tedesco, and junkie brother Ant to name a few. It’s fair to say it was a long two years of waiting for those of us who longed to be frustrated by Caleb again.
As the biblical title suggests, the follow-up to Resurrection Bay, And Fire Came Down, does not shy away from the dramatic. There’s bikies, a drug-ring, gun-fights, racially-motivated violence, beatings, and the threat of bushfire. And yet where Resurrection Bay was ultimately about the explosive betrayal and deception that ripped Caleb’s world apart, the fractious events of And Fire Come Down turn us inward to examine what it means to belong. Caleb is drawn back to his hometown after an unexpected encounter with a young woman ends in her death; the only clue to her identity being a train ticket purchased in Resurrection Bay. There he reconnects with Ant - now in recovery - and seeks to reconnect with ex-wife Kat as he pursues the truth behind the young woman’s death and rising tension in the local community over drugs and crime. What ensues is a cleverly plotted examination of identity, control and belonging.
My one small qualm with Resurrection Bay was the over-labouring of backstory to Caleb’s inescapably complicated personal relationships. Of course this is the way of the first book in any series, and the follow-up certainly doesn’t suffer the same fate. Viskic is free to get on with things in And Fire Came Down, and that she does, with fast action and frankly hilarious dialogue. Her thoughtful treatment of Caleb’s experience as a person with profound deafness is subtle and feels true. Likewise, her nuanced understanding of Koori community relations, family structures and power dynamics shines through. I hesitate to describe either of these elements as a result of great ‘research’, for the humanity of what results in her characters suggests that Viskic has not approached it as such. The diverse lives of Viskic’s characters do not read as well- researched, but as well- understood and respected (the lovely hat tip to Gunditjmara Elder Uncle Jim Berg in the acknowledgements speaks strongly to this).
There are layers of complexity to each character and plot element. Each character is at once hero and villain - indeed we’re never really comfortable enough to know where Caleb himself sits on that spectrum. His disability affords him a certain vulnerability, but he’s never a victim; and don’t be surprised when you find yourself screaming ‘PUT YOUR BLOODY HEARING AIDS IN WHEN YOU GO FOR A BLOODY RUN, CALEB!’. Viskic’s clever insights into blurred motivations will have you questioning the intentions of everyone, regardless of their apparent vulnerability or innocence.
And Fire Came Down is an absolute ripping read. Viskic’s characterisation is as good as you’ll find, her plotting is tight and interesting, and her dialogue is snappy. I particularly loved the fierce exchanges between Caleb and brother Ant; the acerbic to-and-fro that only sibling history can lay groundwork for. Grab this for yourself, gift it for Christmas, or read it yourself before you gift it for Christmas - just make sure you read it (I’d recommend reading Resurrection Bay first so you can get the most out of the peripheral characters in And Fire Came Down - so buy both!). The torment with which we (and Caleb) are left has me hoping we won’t need to wait another two years to find out who is cast in the lake of fire and brimstone next…