Published 2 July 2020 by Penguin Random House
Read from 13 July to 13 July 2020
“The rain woke her.
She needs you.
Eliza opened her eyes. She was facedown in the gravel of the hiking track, the smell of wet earth in her nose.
You have to get up.
She sucked a breath through her teeth. Everything ached. The back of her head stung. Her glasses dug into her temple, the left lens cracked. Her puffer jacket and hiking tights were soaked through to the skin. The icy mountain rain grew heavy, slapping against the gum leaves with the wind. A yellow wattlebird called off in the bush: the sound like a cork pulled from a bottle.
Get up. She needs you.”
If an unpublished author told you they were attempting to write a crime thriller that called on just about every convention in the genre's playbook - a small-town setting, an arrogant out-of-town cop with a traumatic backstory, a local legend, a haunting playground rhyme, red herrings, false endings, multiple viewpoints, corruption and tech-savvy at-risk youth - you'd be forgiven for telling them to reel it in a little and try for something more achievable. Save the complexities for the multiple book-deal once you've sold the rights for your debut cheap-thrill trope-laden holiday read to Netflix. I, for one, am glad that Kyle Perry is surrounded by people with the kind of confidence in his ability as a writer (and as a student of crime fiction) that he clearly deserves.
The Bluffs is a remarkably accomplished piece of plotting and writing for a debut. It really does feel far more 'mid-career' - a fact which is happily reflected the confidence of his publisher to bypass the 'a brave new voice in Australian crime fiction!' cover trope (please stop doing this, publishers!). I picked this one up from Neighbourhood Books in Northcote as part of my weekly mission to order books from an independent bookseller each week for the duration of the pandemic. I picked it (almost) at random and was quickly absorbed in a single-sitting read. 75 books into 2020 and this scenario (random selection into feeling book-grief at the end) has only played out twice, the other being Paul Auster's New York Trilogy, so Perry is in fine company indeed!
I wrote and re-wrote a few versions of this review before realising that everything I want to say about this novel is summarised in my own 'about' page. So bear with me while we step through why The Bluffs is no bog-standard crime-thriller debut. I read voraciously, and for the most-part crime fiction is my food of choice. Why? Partly, it's habit. Partly, it's because I know 'the rules' and find comfort in familiar conventions. But moreover, I read crime fiction because when it's executed well, it really does give us a unique lens through which we can see the humanity (or otherwise) in someone who has been stripped of everything they care for. It allows you to know a town, a region, a society. It can give a voice to the marginalised, the dispossessed. It can examine power, greed and injustice. It allows us to examine how we determine what is right and wrong; how we respond to some crimes (and not others), and what this says about who we are and what we value. How do we shape our laws and other powerful institutions (schools, social and mainstream media etc) and how do they shape us? Who is marginalised by our responses to criminal behaviour; who is amplified and are the right people listening? Perry has nailed all of the above, without labouring it to the point of distraction. And don't be fooled into thinking this is an easy feat - Heather Rose, an otherwise exceptionally talented writer, gave 'genre' a crack (on the Apple Isle, too) with Bruny, and well, let's just say The Museum of Modern Love remains an exceptional novel and never speak of this again.
This is also a book for lovers of place as central character (hello, it me!). Tasmania has always remained a bit of a mystery to me as a Victorian, despite relating strongly to escapees to the mainland who also feel drawn to 'home' as a country girl myself. It's usually fiction that I turn to to resolve most mysteries, but beyond the north/south parochialism and mainland-resistance narratives, nothing I've read has quite scratched away to my satisfaction until now. The Great Western Tiers and their history loom large through every fibre of this book and are ably supported by an ambitiously long list of supporting characters, each with their own richness and role to play in pushing the plot forward. It is clear that Perry is a lifelong collector of stories; his characters are fully-rounded, compassionately constructed and not a single detail is without purpose. This says a lot for both the depth of skill in plotting and character development, but also for Perry's care in the stories he chooses to share. The gems he has collected are not shared gratuitously, nor are they wedged into characters for the sake of a clever anecdote.
The Bluffs is respectful in how it reflects on contemporary life, helped by a genuine understanding of the role technology plays. All too often I pick up a thriller with a good premise only to feel like an author has fallen into the trap of leaning on easy click-bait narratives about technology without taking the time to actually understand whatever 'big bad' they've constructed out of it, or didn't have anyone around them to tell them that 'but she hosts a podcast!' is not enough to make a character interesting. Perry's understanding of the power of influence, both in how we shape and are shaped by the media we create and consume, and in the complexities of teenage female relationships, go a long way to creating an artefact that will return us to this particular point in time without feeling 'dated.' I can't underplay how well he nails the relational power angle, either - there is no 'evil evil' here, everyone is shades of grey. In my mid-thirties I still feel the echoes of teenage relational traumas playing out, and they rang so true here for me.
A tense page-turner that lurks in your mind in all the right ways.