EMMA VISKIC And Fire Came Down. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
Emma Viskic explores difference, and its consequences, in this sequel to Resurrection Bay.
Even before Viskic’s debut novel Resurrection Bay won the 2016 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction and an unprecedented three Davitt Awards, readers were impatiently waiting for more.
Released in August of 2017, And Fire Came Down is the second novel featuring profoundly deaf protagonist Caleb Zelic, set mostly in the fictional seaside town of Resurrection Bay.
And Fire Came Down follows closely on from Resurrection Bay, referencing many of the personal complications, community tensions and family troubles of central character Caleb Zelic. Despite all this, there’s always something that pulls Zelic home. This time, it’s an encounter with a frightened young woman on the streets of Melbourne:
He turned away, and she darted forward and grabbed his arm. Her trembling hand was slick with sweat. Impossible to fake that kind of fear. Or for him to feel like more of an arsehole. She was gesturing urgently, pressing her hands together and pulling them towards herself. A familiar movement, as though she was signing the word ‘help’.
Zelic is profoundly deaf as a result of childhood illness; both his parents are dead, and his brother Ant is living in the family home. While Zelic has long since moved to Melbourne, there are many things that connect him to Resurrection Bay. Ant, a reforming drug addict for whom Zelic has always felt responsible, his wife Kat’s family, including his mother-in-law, who is a local doctor and member of the indigenous community, around which a lot of the story in this second novel revolves.
While And Fire Came Down would work as an introduction to this series, reading the first novel will enhance the connection, as the characters, their interactions and backgrounds are a big part of the story. Part of this need for connection is that Zelic is a complicated character. He is unsure and conflicted about every decision he makes and many things in his life are dictated by his deafness, and his attitude towards it. He and his wife – who was badly injured in the first novel – are struggling with separation, but she also struggles with his inability to admit deafness and his tendency to cover up or downplay it. But it’s not just the lifelong challenges that deafness have presented him with; he’s a little inclined to over-think everything after the event. Which never stops him leaping in where he shouldn’t, giving him plenty to regret afterwards.
Much of which goes to explain why he can’t let go of the confrontation with this young woman in a dark alley in Melbourne. Not after he witnesses her death as she seems to purposely step into fast-moving traffic. Not when he finds a train ticket linking her to Resurrection Bay. Certainly not when he returns home to a brother who is getting his life back on track, and a town that’s spiralling into racial and teenage violence. Not even when he’s sure that a physical assault he endures is connected, although the local cops aren’t that interested:
‘Mate,’ Ramsden said. ‘I don’t want to be an arsehole, but we’re a bit pushed around here. We’ve got meth-heads stabbing their loved ones, a pack of kids trying to start a race riot, and some dickhead burning down buildings in the middle of the hottest summer on record. A dunking in a bath doesn’t really make my top ten. So if I were you, I’d pull my head in and start checking the door before you open it.’
Zelic definitely isn’t a victim, but he’s not the most assured of investigators. He tends to operate by poking sticks into nests until the bees start swarming. It’s effective, eventually, but devastating to many around him. He doesn’t quite belong anywhere – his deafness keeps him at arms’ length from the general community; his marriage to an Aboriginal woman makes him a fringe-dweller in both the local communities; and his brother’s past means that a lot of the old-timers in town treat them with wariness. But he has the ability to be a great observer. His deafness gives him an edge in understanding body language and nuances of behaviour that aren’t as obvious to those who can hear what is happening around them.
Viskic’s exploration of difference and its consequences is particularly strong in both Zelic novels, and the difference between voluntarily stepping away and being forced out by circumstance forms a big part of that:
Ant laughed. ‘”Fix it?” Jesus. Do you ever look at your life? It’s a wasteland of shattered people. You ruin everything you touch. Well, your job’s done here, so you can just fuck off.’
Zelic isn’t an action hero type – the occasional thumping he gets stays with him, and there’s no chance he’ll ever recover from close encounters with firearms, or with drug-fuelled bikies. He’s also trying to recover from a major betrayal – his business partner and friend Frankie makes a reappearance in And Fire Came Down and Zelic is stuck again, somewhere between wanting to trust her and having to rely on her:
He started with her desk, a chunky grey thing with steel legs and a single drawer. There was no space for a secret compartment, but he ran his hands over it anyway, knelt down and peered beneath it. Nothing but cobwebs. Nothing hidden in the padding of her chair or in its wheels; nothing tapped to the underside. He checked everything again …
With beautifully balanced characterisations, action and setting, and some carefully structured social-justice messaging, everything about And Fire Came Down fits neatly together. Its setting is fictional, but feels real – a small town battling drugs and petty crimes; bored teenagers, and undercurrents of deeply ingrained racism while Aboriginal communities struggle for control of their own futures.
Emma Viskic And Fire Came Down Echo 2017 PB $29.99
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
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