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Posted on 2 Apr 2020 in Crime Scene, Fiction |

KIRSTEN ALEXANDER Riptides. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

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Kirsten Alexander’s second novel evokes 1970s Queensland as it explores the fallout of a tragedy.

In her acknowledgements at the end of Riptides, Kirsten Alexander touches on the difficulties she faced in writing about her home town:

Anyone who grew up in Brisbane understands how complicated a relationship with a city can be. I love the place and couldn’t wait to get away from it, and I’m not sure I fully understand either of those responses.

Riptides reflects some of that tension in an unusual crime novel. In December 1984, Abby Campbell and her brother Charlie are driving to their father’s farm on a dark country road when they swerve into the path of another car, forcing it into a tree. The pregnant driver of that car is killed instantly, and Abby and Charlie make a stupid decision: they flee the scene, hoping heavy rain will obliterate their presence.

Dust swirls in front of our headlights, the only movement in a frozen moment. My window is open but I don’t hear a sound from the surrounding bush, the cicadas and creaky eucalypts dumbstruck. Abby and I stare through the windscreen at the dust, panting, coughing.

Riptides is an exploration of consequences, and delves deeply into how one bad decision can tear your world apart. It affects not just the perpetrators, but their families and friends. The fallout for Abby and Charlie is sometimes dramatic, sometimes minor, but it’s there every day of their lives from that moment on. In the end, it’s not so much the crime but the cover-up that will haunt these people forever.

Set in the 1970s, Riptides uses the period’s social turmoil in Brisbane – and Australia – as a backdrop for the family and their own ructions. It’s the time of Cyclone Tracy and the events leading up to the Whitlam sacking. In rain-sodden, flooded, locked-down, corrupt Queensland (and  yes, the corrupt Queensland police), a small community wears the impact of that young woman’s death in a series of blows both expected and unexpected.

The community we meet begins with Abby, her brother Charlie and father John, and expands to include Abby’s husband Mark and their kids; Charlie’s friends Sal and Ryan and Charlie’s life in Bali; close neighbours and friends and, most shockingly of all, John’s fiancée Skye. The early chapters rapidly introduce a series of viewpoints, current events, and their connections – you will need to be paying close attention.

Mark is working on a story about the Whiskey Au Go Go. He was convinced, when the nightclub was firebombed in March last year, killing fifteen people, that the case against the two men arrested was shaky and, after seeing the way they reacted at their trial in October, he’s sure they’re innocent. Mark has hushed urgent phone conversations with his producer, and disappears for hours to interview sources.

From the startling opening chapter as Abby and Charlie flounder at the accident scene, to the revelation that the young woman who died was carrying a baby who would have been their half-sibling, the reader is moved rapidly through a series of short, sharp alternating viewpoint chapters that pull back the curtain on flaws, failings, frailty and human error. From denying knowledge of the car accident or ever being at the scene, through to their father having kept his relationship and the pregnancy a secret, and onwards to the fallout from guilt, lying and sheer tension, nobody in this story is perfect, and everybody does stupid things.

At no stage, however, is there anybody in this group who doesn’t feel deserving of at least some understanding, if not sympathy. For something as fast-paced and committed to forward momentum as Riptides is, it manages to provide plenty of time for contemplation. With an intricate, flawed and complicated cast of characters, and a backdrop of recent history that many of us will remember, Alexander has given herself the perfect setting to explore issues such as blame, guilt, loss, grief, redemption, responsibility, trust, loyalty and the ties that bind. There are also significant touches of menace from outside the community – the police investigation into the accident never really goes away, despite the passing of time, and a seeming lack of real evidence.

In her acknowledgements Alexander pays tribute to the late Queensland writer Andrew McGahan and his book Last Drinks:

Until I read his novel … I didn’t know it was possible to write about my hometown and all its contradictions with honesty and affection.

Last Drinks was a standout novel back in 2000. Funny, shocking and fast moving, it was about what can go wrong in the life of one man, and at that time it was a particularly unusual novel. Riptides is categorised as a crime novel but it’s likewise a very different beast from the usual crime fiction offering. Unlike the McGahan, it isn’t intended to be humorous, but it’s certainly as shocking, revealing what can go wrong in the lives of a lot of people when the maelstrom hits. It should appeal to anybody seeking some understanding of human behaviour at its best and worst.

Kirsten Alexander Riptides Transworld PB 352pp $32.99

Karen Chisholm blogs from, where she posts book reviews as well as author biographies.

You can buy Riptides from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.