Crime Scene: ANNA WESTBROOK Dark Fires Shall Burn. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
Inspired by the true events surrounding an unsolved murder, Dark Fires Shall Burn is set in Sydney’s Newtown in the aftermath of World War II.
The title of Anna Westbrook’s debut novel is wonderful. Based around a stanza from the Australian poet Dorothy Hewett, it nails the style of the book and the combined story lines:
The dark fires shall burn in many rooms;
will they sometimes miss me with my tangled hair –
still girls in dark uniforms
crouching in winter with their cold hands trembling,
still voices echoing as our voices echoed …
The novel takes place in 1946, in a society adjusting to the end of the war. There’s an influx of returning soldiers, many carrying the psychological scars of their experiences with them. There are bootleggers, marauding gangs and brothels run by women, but guarded by dangerous men. Despite this seemingly very male environment, Dark Fires Shall Burn is a story mostly about women. Not written exclusively for women readers, it’s a story of the way that women’s and girls’ lives played out against that male backdrop.
Eleven-year-old Frances and her best friend Nancy are growing up in a world that is unfathomable to them on many levels. Both have fractured family backgrounds, both have mothers who are struggling with the way their lives have panned out, and neither of them has much in the way of support except their shared, sometimes tricky friendship. In a particularly beguiling manner, Westbrook takes us into the lives of two normal little girls living in confronting circumstances right from the opening lines of the book:
Frances rests her head against a pockmarked cherub, the stone cool on her skin. She likes the statue’s pretty lips and lichen freckles. The air in the cemetery is still, almost taut with quiet, and she and Nancy have been told more than once not to play here. You find all sorts lurking. Drunks. Lunatics. Devils.
Meanwhile Annie and her 15-year-old brother Templeton are recently arrived in the city and finding their own way in this alien world. Forced from their family farm after a series of tragic events, Annie and Templeton have met and now live with friends. They are all surviving as best they can:
Then he was on the tram to Glebe, picturing his sister and Dot and Sally in the ladies department, pulling one over. Annie holding her hands clasped so the holes in her gloves couldn’t be seen, gliding in, her face serene, like Daddy owned a sheep station. He knew their game: stockings and ribbons mostly, easy to hide, easy to sell on. And the occasional luxury, or a fancy hat just for sport. Annie liked the ones with the ostrich feathers, the hardest to smuggle.
The lives of these two groups continue in their own tracks, sometimes intersecting in ways that, while inevitable, are still unexpected and ultimately tragic, partly because of the times and living in a small inner suburb, but also as a result of the actions of many of the men around them.
Starting out with Annie, Dot and Sally having to turn to prostitution as one of their means of survival, through to their ending up in the thralls of notorious Darlinghurst madam and once-powerful grog runner Dolly Jenkins, there’s a seething violence running underneath all their lives. Annie’s abusive lover, Jack Tooth, is involved in things that put the three girls and Templeton in danger, and then start to spiral out into the community. The coincidence of wrong place/wrong time works in this context for all five girls. Meanwhile Templeton is also having to make choices that are not savoury or fair, but totally understandable:
After a minute or so, Templeton becomes aware that the man who has taken a seat nearby on the fountain’s edge is regarding him intently. It is the flash of his gold cufflinks that catches Templeton’s eye.
The novel is not just dark and dire; there are moments of fun, and the characters of the three older girls in particular are bright, clear and frequently positive. This, combined with some glorious descriptions of Sydney at the end of the war, make the book both compelling and sometimes uplifting reading:
Around her, it was like someone had punched open a bag of diamonds and they were raining on everybody, their glisten getting inside people and lighting them up: drunk, half-mad, raving – everyone. Confetti fell from the high windows of the office buildings, the streets turning white with paper snow. People lurched about, throwing confetti snowballs at each other.
There have been plenty of descriptions of end-of-war celebrations written over the years, but this one, as seen through the eyes of young Nancy, is apt. As is her final observation from that moment:
Nancy saw the streamers draped over the mount and caught around the saddle, and a woman writing on the animal’s white flank with her lipstick in wide, ragged crimson letters. Victory. She saw the horse’s eyes rolling in fear.
There is also help and a form of rescue, one that might have a whiff of Hobson’s choice about it, but the girls again make the best of the alternatives available. Safer circumstances don’t always lead to contentment, however, and the chance of love and the ever-present longing for a future mean that not everything ends up in happy-ever-after territory.
It’s these sorts of changes in circumstances and the choices they present that lead to wonderful contrasts of light and dark, happy and sad, scared and brave, capable and barely hanging in there. These make the crime when it occurs even more poignant, and the reactions heartbreaking. This is fiction that draws a strong line between the battle to survive and the actions of a man with an entitlement complex that is breathtaking in its savagery.
What will stay with readers is the under-acknowledged damage done to women in wartime Australia. It is, of course, very different from the damage done to the soldiers who fought, but it’s there. It’s in the mothers raising children alone because fathers couldn’t, or sometimes wouldn’t, return to support them. It’s there in the young girls who had to survive when the economy suddenly deemed them ‘not necessary’ to a workforce that had recently welcomed them. It’s there in the young girls who grew up in a time of turmoil and change, watching their mothers’ pain, trying to divine their own futures as they observe the struggles of so many young women around them.
Most importantly, the events of Dark Files Shall Burn illustrate that there’s nothing weak about any of these women, or the young men like Templeton, regardless of how they lived their lives and the choices they made from the limited options available to them.
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
Anna Westbrook Dark Fires Shall Burn Scribe 2016 PB 288pp $32.99
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