What sort of voices are shaping Australian fiction? Two new novels offer answers. Both are firsts for their authors, both were nominated for awards before they were even published and both are by women.
But here, the passing similarities end: Jane Harper’s The Dry is a contemporary murder mystery set in a rural town, while Emily Bitto’s The Strays takes the reader to Melbourne in the 1930s.
The Dry is one of the most talked-about debuts of the new year. During the worst drought of the century, Federal agent Aaron Falk is called back to Kiewarra, a small town in West Australia, to investigate a murder-suicide. His high school friend Luke Hadler appears to have murdered his wife and son before killing himself: another farmer pushed to the brink by the punishing weather.
As a favor to Hadler’s parents, Falk reluctantly launches an investigation with the help of local policeman Greg Raco. But most of the old residents of Kiewarra aren’t pleased to see Falk, who was run out of town 20 years earlier after being suspected in the death of his classmate Ellie Deacon. As Falk digs into the circumstances around Luke’s death, long-hidden mysteries and animosities begin to surface.
Harper’s story is tightly plotted and moves briskly, the tension as brittle and incendiary as the dried-out crops on the Kiewarra farms. Falk is a quintessential detective: introverted, reserved and deeply wounded. But it is the beautifully evoked landscape and the portrayal of a gloomy outpost on the edge of a desert that are the stars of the show.
[Read a Q&A with Jane Harper about The Dry.]
The Strays plunges the reader into a more cosmopolitan environment. On her first day of school, the socially tentative Lily is embraced by Eva, one of three daughters of the famous painter Evan Trentham and his wealthy wife, Helena. Growing up in a conventional Melbourne home in the 1930s, where an exciting evening is hot cocoa and a jigsaw puzzle, Lily is fascinated by the Trenthams’ rambling garden and the creative chaos of their family life, especially after Helena invites a group of fellow artists into the family home. This experiment in communal living, with its lack of rules and lively conversations and parties, seems delightful at first. But the youngest daughter, Heloise, troubled to begin with, becomes unnaturally close to her father’s greatest rival, with disastrous results.
The novel is told in a series of flashbacks by the adult Lily, who looks back with a bittersweet mixture of fondness and disgust at the benign neglect under which the girls were raised. When Eva comes back to town for a retrospective of her father’s work, Lily begins to wonder why she was drawn to the Trenthams in the first place.
Bitto loosely based the Trenthams on the Heide Circle, a group of Melbourne artists known for their unconventional lifestyles and named for the Heide communal house in which they lived. But The Strays is more of a psychological study than a historical one: As Lily begins to understand what happened at the Trenthams, she comes to terms with her role as a bystander to her own life. Told in both the breathless voice of an easily infatuated child and the more measured tones of a wiser adult, The Strays is a powerful tale of the consequences of creativity.