Published 27 June 2017 by Hachette Australia
Read from 6 to 8 July 2017
“In the long, hot summer of 1989, Ben and Fab are best friends. Growing up in a small country town, they spend their days playing cricket, yabbying in local dams, wanting a pair of Nike Air Maxes and not talking about how Fab's dad hits him or how the sudden death of Ben's next-door neighbour unsettled him. Almost teenagers, they already know some things are better left unsaid. Then a newcomer arrived in the Wimmera. Fab reckoned he was a secret agent and he and Ben staked him out. Up close, the man's shoulders were wide and the veins in his arms stuck out, blue and green. His hands were enormous, red and knotty. He looked strong. Maybe even stronger than Fab's dad. Neither realised the shadow this man would cast over both their lives. Twenty years later, Fab is still stuck in town, going nowhere but hoping for somewhere better. Then a body is found in the river, and Fab can't ignore the past any more.”
It sure feels like it’s been a long wait for Wimmera, Mark Brandi’s debut novel, to finally hit the shelves. I’m a sucker for crime fiction in rural settings in any case, but when an unpublished manuscript is set in the Victorian region neighbouring my own and finds itself the winner of the prestigious Debut Dagger by the UK Crime Writers Association? Well, clear the to-read pile! And so, a long 8 months have passed since the Dagger announcement and I’ve finally got my grubby hands on a copy.
Brandi has delivered a compelling, yet deeply unsettling, novel in his debut. The narrative unfolds in three parts; each more unsettling than the last. In fact the narrative progresses much like the clouds that billow and rupture over the stony face of the Grampians and across the Wimmera plains in the intriguing set-up to Wimmera’s dark secret. The winds of this story begin in the north (with carefree boyhood friendship and backyard cricket), shift south-west (towards battles with social and economic capital), and finally settle in the south (with a crescendo as messy as the aftermath of a storm).
In an effort to avoid spoilers I won’t go into great detail about what unfolds, only to say that Wimmera handles the topic of child sexual assault and its rippling damage. It does so in way that explores how such criminal activity furtively invades homes and families and places it in a shifting context of understanding that matures over the timeline of the narrative.
As is clear in the eponymous title, the rural setting of Wimmera is critical to its telling. The characters are of their setting and of their time, with clear geographic and social indicators placed throughout for those with enough local familiarity to recognise without alienating city-dwelling and international readers alike. The active gold mine, meat-bound livestock, granite outcrops and a patchwork of ‘yellow’ (presumably wheat- and barley-cropped) paddocks easily distinguishes the rural Victorian setting of Wimmera for this Mallee-girl (in fact I swear I caught the familiar stench of sheep shit and lanolin early on).
As a small side-note that is entirely influenced by my own life experience growing up in a town of 800 people, I really wish that Stawell had either been explicitly named earlier in the book, or not at all. The characterisation of the setting was sophisticated enough that it could have been a fictional township, and I was a little thrown to discover that Ben and Fab were in fact in Stawell, which to me has always been a ‘big’ town (everything is relative)! Once Stawell was named (about half way through the book), I had to re-orient myself a little, having imagined a town more the size of Dimboola to that point.
I will admit that early over-peppering of not-so-subtle pop-culture references (The Wonder Years and the A Team on the television) in an effort to set the scene from a time perspective had me reaching for the nostalgia sick-bag, but this was quickly overcome as more restrained hints (chocolate mousse with chopped up nuts on top, gender roles in family settings) came to the fore. As the novel progresses, Brandi ratchets up the narrative tension with alternating time-periods, during which these hints are cleverly executed to avoid any confusion (e.g. the introduction of a Sudanese character places certain scenes firmly in a contemporary setting).
Brandi has a finely-tuned understanding of the complexities of being a young man in a rural setting. His writing of this experience is perceptive and captures small details that enrich the telling of his characters’ stories. One of my favourite moments was when Ben sees his dad in a suit for the first (and only) time: “It was navy blue and it made him look like the prime minister…”. He likewise captures dialogue in adult characters so true to life that at times it feels like you might just be leaning on the end of the bar in the pub eavesdropping on the regulars.
While eleven-year-old classic-country-kid Ben is the primary focus of the first part of the novel - and remains central to the secret that compels us forward - it is Fab that comes through as the strongest voice and character. As the only Italian boy in a small rural town, Fab is a true outsider, affording Brandi more opportunities to reflect the changing (or not-so-changing) sociocultural landscape over time. It is refreshing to read rural-set crime with genuine cultural diversity. The diversity we read here is not superficial, and never strays into cliche.
Speaking of diversity, it’s important to acknowledge Brandi’s careful and deliberate telling of women in this story. While the women of Wimmera are largely victims (a young suicide, a victim of domestic violence, objects in porn magazines, a ’hot’ relief teacher named in a Freudian vein and subjected to the young male gaze, an enslaved publican’s wife), they are not written so for gratuitous reasons. Each is represented sensitively as a comment on the social setting, and no detail is outlined without purpose. The seemingly innocuous correction of ‘Miss’ to ‘Ms’, for example, subtly exposes a shift. This isn’t an explicit theme of the book, but is a subtle undercurrent that didn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated by this reader.
I suspect some reviews may call out the ending as a little dissatisfying, but the messy way in which this narrative peaks is so true to the reality of life (and criminal justice) that I wouldn’t have it any other way. Indeed the crescendo leaves the reader in no doubt that Wimmera sits both on the ‘literary’ end of the crime fiction spectrum and firmly in the ‘noir’ camp. The symbolic elements that finally draw together as this book goes on are really gratifying from a literary perspective (e.g. the skinning of the rabbit, etc), and those questions left unanswered are done so to great effect.
This is a really solid read that gets better as it goes on. Believe me, as the tension rises you’ll feel this one right in the guts. Be prepared to feel genuinely tense (and a little nauseous) as the complex knot of this small town’s secret is unravelled. I’m already looking forward to more from Brandi, and hoping it will be in the form of more top-notch rural literary noir.