A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
Grant’s holiday break marks the halfway point of his two year student teaching post in rural Western Australia. He’s dying to spend the six weeks vacation back east in his beloved Sydney, but an overnight stop in Bundanyabba, the nearest city to offer flights east, turns into a terrifying, life-changing ordeal.
The first person Grant meets in Bundanyabba is an over-friendly police officer named Crawford, who quickly leads Grant from bar to bar and from beer to whiskey, finally leaving him wasted in a dangerous gambling den. When, 150 hellish pages later, Grant drags himself back into the town from the outback—in a drunken stupor, covered in blood, and brandishing a loaded rifle—he meets Crawford again and instead of being whisked off to a jail cell is promptly led back to the nearest bar.
All the horror and violence that happens in between is not just an exercise in shock. Kenneth Cook’s prose is up to the task of tying Grant’s disorienting experience to the landscape around him through wonderful poetic passages. And while many of the secondary characters are one-dimenional caricatures, Grant’s psychological transformation from innocent young man to hardened adult is remarkably realistic. Grant’s awkwardness among the rough-hewn locals even gives us some pitch-black comic relief. I’ll leave you with a rather lengthy quote that nicely captures the feel of Cook’s writing, from Whitmanesque evocations of the outback to sharp punchlines:
Grant could see in the beam of light pairs of coloured spots, yellow spots, blue spots, orange spots; glinting suddenly and fixedly, then flicking out. These were the eyes of the animals of the scrub, possums, sheep, foxes, dingoes, cattle, kangaroos, rabbits, rats, emus, wild cats, bandicoots, all turning their eyes into the giant white beam that pointed its way through their bush, catching a little of it and sending it back, coloured. Then they would turn their heads and bolt away and the colours would flick out.
Grant was caught in the rush of visual effects—black shadows, coloured spots, the great white beam, the cigarette of the man in the front seat, strange little glints from shiny leaves, the heavy darkness of the scrub, all held and contained by the hovering curve of the black, black, purple black sky which only the stars could penetrate
The stars, the western stars, so many, so bright, so close, so clean, so clear; splitting the sky in remorseless frigidity; pure stars, unemotional stars; stars in command of the night and themselves; undemanding and unforgiving; excelling in their being and forming God’s incontrovertible argument against the charge of error in creating the west.
The car stopped and Dick opened a bottle of beer with his teeth.
It’s a novel you won’t soon forget. Recommended for anyone who thinks they have a strong enough stomach.
Review by Matthew