SARAH BAILEY The Dark Lake. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
A debut novel set in a small Australian town, The Dark Lake is a police procedural with a hefty dose of romantic tension.
DS Gemma Woodstock and Rosalind Ryan went to the same school. Back then Woodstock was obsessed with Ryan, who seemed to have it all. From a wealthy, well-known local family, she was beautiful, clever, inscrutable – untouchable.
Ryan was the one who left town to teach in Sydney. Woodstock stayed and joined the police force. Ryan eventually returns to teach at their old school, and she still seems to have it all. Woodstock is struggling in a relationship, having an affair with her married work partner.
When Ryan is found strangled, floating in the local lake, they have a homicide investigation on their hands, and a very different picture of the ‘it’ girl starts to emerge. Why did the woman who had everything choose teaching in the first place? And why the hurried return from Sydney? What is it with the odd family dynamics – a father who is ill, and brothers who seem oddly disconnected? And why isn’t Ryan living at home in the family mansion, with the care and support of that family, instead of being in a small run-down apartment devoid of personality and without much in the way of personal comfort? There’s definitely something very odd about Rosalind and her family, and how could Woodstock not know that? It’s a small town, after all, and Rosalind was the shining light of her teenage years:
Rose was lit by the sun, her beautiful face giving nothing away. Even back then, she was a mystery that I wanted to solve.
The Dark Lake concentrates heavily on the background of Gemma Woodstock, in particular. It feels like the setup of an ongoing series character because of that, with the story of her life interwoven with that of the victim in the context of a small community, although this is obviously a much bigger town than it was when they were kids:
Set in between a burst of mountain ranges, Smithson is a little oasis of greenery in the middle of endless fawn-coloured acres of Aussie farmland. Smithson is known for ‘catching the rain’ that runs from the mountains, which is ironic as it’s the surrounding farms that actually need it. It’s changed a lot over the past decade. Carling Enterprises, a major cannery business, built a manufacturing plant on the outskirts of the town in the late nineties, just as I was finishing school.
This change in the demographic of the small town goes a long way towards explaining the lack of ongoing contact between Woodstock and her teenage friends; it explains the way that Rosalind’s circumstances come as a bit of a surprise, and it definitely draws a picture of a place that is struggling with change, just as the characters in the novel are. Setting, though, is not the major component of this book – it’s more about the characters and their backstories.
There’s nobody in this novel who doesn’t have a difficult history. Rosalind’s death is a vehicle to tease out the tensions and talk about the personal – in particular, Woodstock’s personal life:
I found my feet when I became a cop. After years of teetering on the brink, wildly close to the edge, the force pulled me back to safety; I walked tall again. Dad said my uniform made me look strong. I think that I simply stopped looking at the ground when I wore it.
This is a story with a split focus – Rosalind’s death providing the police-procedural component, and the main strand dealing with the teetering mess of personal lives. At 427 pages, most of the novel does seem to concentrate on Woodstock’s personal story. She struggles with the death of her mother, the death of her first real love (at the lake where Rosalind was found), her foundering relationship with boyfriend Scott, her young son, her affair with her colleague Felix, and always, with her odd hero-worship of the young Rosalind. This concentration on the personal means The Dark Lake is going to appeal to readers who are looking for something more along the lines of romantic suspense than a fast-paced, traditional police procedural.
The story’s also told in changing timelines, switching between the present, the recent and the long-ago in a variety of chapters (sub-headed with dates and times), and interspersed with Woodstock’s thoughts and feelings. Even at the initial crime scene we’re given a taste of Woodstock’s reactions and memories:
I want to be alone. I brake suddenly, seeing a red light just in time. Felix throws me a look but I keep my gaze on the road. Rosalind Ryan is dead. Rosalind Ryan is dead, I think, over and over. And then I think that somehow I always knew that something like this would happen.
Along the way there are revelations about a complicated investigator and a complicated victim. Rosalind comes and goes from the narrative, in much the same way that you suspect she would have done in life. She’s enigmatic, subdued and mysterious enough to make you want to know more about her and how she came to lose her life, seemingly at a point of great personal achievement – the staging of her re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet:
It suddenly seems important that Rosalind got to see that first night of the play. Saw that it had all come together and got to stand back and watch the timeless story she loved so much play out.
The school is the epicentre of all of this. It’s where the victim and the investigator first met, it’s where they came to know each other, and it’s where they met many of the people who go on to become part of their story. It’s also the place Rosalind returned to, where she attempted to forge an identity, and ultimately where everything came undone.
Nobody comes off lightly in The Dark Lake. All the characters have something to hide, something that’s torturing them, and something that keeps them orbiting the supposed safety of home.
Sarah Bailey The Dark Lake Allen & Unwin 2017 PB 448pp $32.99
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
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