Crime Scene: MARK BRANDI Wimmera. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
In 2016 the unpublished manuscript of Wimmera won the UK Crime Writers’ Association debut dagger – now it’s published and we can see why.
Set in the late 1980s in Stawell, a town on the edge of the Wimmera farming region in north-western Victoria, Wimmera is timely in subject matter and perfect in its evocation of place and sensibility:
To the east of the curve was a flat, yellow patchwork of paddocks that disappeared in a shimmer below the stony face of the Grampians, looming like a tidal wave at the horizon.
Anybody who knows that part of Victoria will instantly recognise that image, as they will the terror of two young boys who cross the highway against Dad’s explicit instructions, bound for the river and a discovery that makes sense later in the novel. A coming-of-age narrative with a twist in the tale, Wimmera is told in three parts.
Part One is set around the childhood of friends Ben and Fab. It’s a pretty typical country childhood from that time. Watching the A-Team on TV, yabbying, playing cricket and roaming about the countryside in the holidays, dealing with tensions with teachers and the bullying of kids at school. There are differences between the two boys though. Ben has a happy family, and there’s much in his day-to-day life that will ring bells for many of us: the ‘special room’ only used when guests come to dinner, Neapolitan ice-cream (the chocolate always eaten first), doing chores for the new neighbour in town, and the long, happy days of school holidays, always spent at home because his family isn’t the going-away-on holidays type:
At home, the days and weeks seemed to stretch on without end. He could daydream for hours, building imaginary worlds at the back of the yard, up near the shed. Whole civilisations rose and fell in the black soil of the veggie garden. Epic wars were won and lost.
Fab, on the other hand, is the son of Italian immigrants, which makes his family a bit different, but more importantly, his father is a violent man, prone to outbursts of temper, so much of Fab’s home life is lived in tension and fear:
The front door squeaked open. And it was like all the air got sucked right out of the room.
As was often the case in these little towns, there was also something simmering under the surface, and when 14-year-old Daisy Wolfe hanged herself from the Hills Hoist in the backyard, nobody talked about it.
That silence and lack of understanding is chilling, as this is a novel about child sexual abuse and exploitation, grooming, and the way predators stick together. The subject is sensitively handled, hinted at rather than graphically described. Within that context the lure of the bright lights of Ballarat are dangerous, particularly knowing as we now do that Ballarat was the epicentre of some of the worst child abuse in recent years.
Part Two of the novel is about Fab, still in town in his 20s, stuck in a nowhere trolley-jockey job at the local supermarket, still living with his mum, his dad now long dead. Fab’s only break from the nothingness of his life is the dream of running away with the wife of the publican, and a chance to start over. Maybe confess what he’s never told anyone:
As he lay there in the cool inky darkness, he decided that he would tell her more. About his friend. His only friend. But he would wait until they’d left town, until everything was done and they’d moved to Ballarat. He couldn’t risk things until then.
Brandi’s choice to set the story in a small country town, where everybody knows everybody else and their business, is a powerful one, not least because of the accuracy of his depiction and his affection for the foibles of these sorts of places and the people who inhabit them. As with Jane Harper’s much applauded novel The Dry, this is rural and regional Australia depicted fairly and reasonably, never pretending that everything is perfect or, conversely, flat-out weird and awful. These towns are the places many of us grew up in, these people are our families, friends and neighbours. This is what makes what happens in the end of Wimmera so gut-wrenching.
While Wimmera explores possible reasons why child abuse flourishes, it does so from a challenging series of viewpoints. To look at violence within families and adult predatory behaviour from the point of view of the children who are the potential victims is emotional but also informative. These young boys are confused and confronted, without the language to articulate, much less understand, what is happening and how to avoid it. The different power relationships between adults, and between adults and children, is stark – from one boy being beaten dreadfully by a drunken no-hoper of a father, to the odd behaviour of a man forming private friendships with young boys. There’s naivety or wilful blindness in neighbours and families, and something disconnected about the parenting. Which is exactly how it was in those days. Kids weren’t necessarily equipped with the skills to get out of bad situations, so while not surprising, it makes reading it all the more discomforting.
Part Three tackles consequences: the law and the damage that can never be eradicated:
‘This is a recording of an interview between myself, Detective Senior Constable Vincent Mackie, and Mr Fabrizio Morressi, conducted at the Stawell Police Station on Tuesday the thirteenth of May, 2006. Additional persons present are corroborator, Detective Sergeant David Mullins.’
There is much in this section to challenge the reader. Interviews lead to court cases, cases to verdicts, and further effects on lives already blighted.
Wimmera perfectly captures the feeling of open plains and summer glare, the unforgiving light and heat that gets into every dark corner, exposing society’s flaws and mistakes and the high price that too many kids have paid.
Mark Brandi Wimmera Hachette 2017 PB 272pp $29.99
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.