Dark stories Down Under: Tasmanian Gothic, Aussie noir
David Wright of the Seattle Public Library rounds up a crop of recent Australian noir. Or is it Tasmanian Gothic? Dark stories from Down Under include works by authors Garry Disher, Rohan Wilson, Favel Parrett, Elizabeth Harrower and others.
Special to The Seattle Times
When we think of Australia, we may envision endless summers, sunny beaches, easygoing smiles and a charmingly quirky sense of humor. Yet a real vein of darkness runs through the land down under and its literature, as seen in stories set in a place that seems a cross between Joseph Conrad’s brooding Congo and Cormac McCarthy’s cruel American West.
“Hell to Pay”(Soho Crime, $26.95) is a perfect introduction to the work of veteran crime novelist Garry Disher. Stripped of rank and exiled into the remote desolation north of Adelaide after testifying against some corrupt colleagues, Constable Paul “Hirsch” Hirschhausen is a man utterly alone, loathed by other lawmen and distrusted by the locals. Pouring himself into his work, the dogged Hirsch sifts the parched sands for clues to a suspicious hit-and-run death with a keen eye for detail.
Disher’s stark descriptions of the sweltering outback will have your reaching for a cool drink. Hirsch is a classic lone wolf — or should I say lone dingo? — whose laconic stoicism and basic decency will have you longing for a sequel.
Drawn from the brutal history of early 19th century Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), Rohan Wilson’s debut “The Roving Party”(Soho, $25) follows a crew of prisoners and native trackers from the mainland of Australia, working for their freedom by helping landowner John Batman carry out a state-sponsored program of genocide against the island’s original inhabitants.
At the center of these driven and desperate souls is the fearsomely capable Black Bill, an aboriginal Vandemonian raised by whites and driven by his own inscrutable code, a blend of cruel pragmatism and ancestral magic.
Perhaps it is to exorcise the latter that Bill relentlessly hunts the indomitable tribal headman and shaman Manalargena, leader of a doomed uprising against the white settlers. Even the landscape itself, with its outlandish flora and fauna, seems bent on the destruction of this hunting party of the damned.
The grim implacability of nature and end-of-the-world remoteness that haunts Wilson’s novel and those of his countryman Richard Flanagan have inspired the label “Tasmanian Gothic,” a genre which could easily include Favel Parrett’s deeply moving debut “Past the Shallows”(Washington Square Press, $15). Rendered in spare, evocative prose, it is the story of three brothers whose mother dies in a car wreck. The boys are left to struggle under the harsh yoke of their wrathful father, an abalone fisherman eking out a meager living on the island’s storm-tossed southern coast.
As the eldest brother finishes the boat which will furnish his escape, the younger boys dread a future without his protection, trapped by sea and rocks and dad. Parrett paints this primal conflict with a breathtaking emotional directness that will captivate adult and teen readers alike.
There’s something distinctly Gothic about Elizabeth Harrower’s recently reprinted 1966 masterpiece “The Watch Tower.”(Text Classics, $14.95). Set in Sydney circa 1940, this riveting tale of two sisters abandoned to the cruel whims of a vindictive domestic tyrant could as easily be set in the 1840s, so Dickensian is their plight.
Their father dead and their self-centered mother fled, young Laura and Clare surrender their dreams and accept the seeming beneficence of businessman Felix Shaw, who is gradually revealed to be a sexually repressed misogynist as twisted as any monster found in Grimm’s tales.
As the grasp of this frustrated Bluebeard tightens around the pair, Felix’s dutiful bride Laura seems to embrace her captivity and even to pity her tormentor. Younger sister Clare finds respite from her increasing isolation through reading Russian novels, while we anxiously watch the pilot light of her humanity flicker in the dark.
Never before published in the U.S., “The Watch Tower” invites comparison with Shirley Jackson’s feeling of sunny suburban dread, and is one of five novels by the neglected Harrower brought back into print by Text Classics, a new imprint dedicated to “unearthing the lost marvels” of Australian literature.
Other titles among Text Classics rich literary trove include Kenneth Cook’s harrowing 1961 outback thriller “Wake in Fright” (basis for the disturbing cult film of the same name), and Kenneth Mackenzie’s achingly poetic coming-of-age idyll “The Young Desire It.” Flipping through Text Classics burgeoning catalog feels like discovering the strange untold wonders of a whole new continent, which in fact it is.
David Wright is a reader services librarian at the Seattle Public Library’s Central Branch. Get a personalized reading list from David and his fellow librarians at Your Next Five Books. www.spl.org/yournext5 .